The Chicago suburbs were in the throes of a great educational experiment: the open concept school. Oakview Elementary had no interior walls, just a series of carpeted sunken living rooms that served as classrooms. We didn’t have desks; rather, we sat on the two steps that defined the classroom while our teacher, Miss Bruce, stood in front of us.
“Christmas break is coming soon. Are you excited about Christmas?” Miss Bruce asked.
“Yeah!” screamed every second grader in a half-mile radius.
“Me too! We’re going to have a lot of fun these last two weeks. We’re going to make Christmas ornaments and play Secret Santa and learn some songs. And guess what? There’s a school Christmas concert coming up, too!”
We ran for the craft tables, Curt Motisi, Eddie Cosentino, Brent Yastremski, and I. Brent made a casting of his hand with Elmer’s glue. Curt worked on a pipe cleaner reindeer.
“Hey, are you guys going to watch Rudolph on Thursday?” Eddie asked.
“That’s kid stuff!” Brent laughed.
Curt looked up from his reindeer. “Yeah, I’m not going to watch it. Are you, Jimmy?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I have sisters. They’ll probably want to watch it.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said. “My brother Chucky will probably want to watch it.”
We cut and pasted and told lies and threw cotton balls at each other until Miss Bruce called us back over to the stairs.
“Okay, let’s practice our song. I mimeographed the words for everyone.” She passed out the lyric sheets and we each held the paper up to our noses, inhaled the purple ink. “Everyone sing after me: Pine cones and holly berries…”
Curt and I didn’t talk on the bus ride home. We were trying to win citizenship awards so everyday while paper, hats and fists flew around the cabin and kids screamed and laughed we sat quietly with our hands in our laps. But as soon as we were off the bus all of that backed up blather bubbled out.
“What are you going to ask for for Christmas?” Curt asked. “What are you going to get for a Secret Santa gift? That new kid eats frozen pizza still frozen. Do you want to come over and play Evel Knievels? I like The Monkees. Are you really not going to watch Rudolph? My dog threw up last night.”
“I think I want an erector set. My Dad says they are the best toy.”
“You make things with it.” My Dad was a manager at a medical supply plant. He worked a lot of hours, a lot of shift work. I didn’t see him much during those years, and when I did he was angry. He spent his free time in his garage packed with tools, cars, and other man toys.
I ran through the front door with my mimeographed lyrics in my hand. “Momma! Mom! Momma! I’m going to be in a concert!”
“A Christmas concert! We’re going to sing a song that goes ‘Popcorn and holly berries…”
She smiled, looked at the lyrics sheet. “That’s ‘pine cones,’ honey. This doesn’t say what time.”
“And I’m going to be a Secret Santa. I have to buy a present. Can we go to the store?”
“You need to find out what day and time and where this concert is.”
“Please can we go right now and get the present?”
I’d been home two minutes and she already looked tired. “Okay, let me get a coat.”
We drove to K-Mart and headed to the toy section. “Don’t spend a lot,” she said.” I picked up a plastic dinosaur. “No, that’s too expensive.” I went for the Hot Wheels 6-pack. “No, you need to find something cheaper.” A pocket-sized erector set. “How much is it?”
“That should be okay.”
“Can I get one, too, Mama?”
“No, Christmas is almost here. You should think about other people, not yourself. There are enough selfish people in the world.”
At home we wrapped the little erector set in paper bearing a photograph of a rocky stream. Not too Christmassy, but I liked the contrast of the rocks and pebbles now formed into a cube. The finished product looked like someone cut a block out of a riverbed.
Every day we worked on “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” in Miss Bruce’s class. And afterward while Kenny, Curt, and Eddie glued cotton balls to construction paper and twisted pipe cleaners, I drew the same scene repeatedly: A bright fireplace, just like in the song, with an oval rug in front of it. A black cat slept curled up on the rug. Next to the fireplace was a snowy window, and beside that a Christmas tree. I was very proud of my Christmas trees — they looked like actual trees. The other kids drew green triangles. Every morning at the craft table I repeated this drawing.
And every afternoon I went home and stared at the Secret Santa present. I wanted to open it so badly. My father’s favorite toy was an erector set.
Secret Santa day finally arrived. Miss Bruce wrote a number on each of the presents and then put a corresponding numbered slip of paper into her floppy felt hat.
“If you pick your own number pick again,” she said. One by one the gifts left the pile, their new owners grinning and shaking. “Jimmy, it’s your turn.”
I reached into the purple hat and pulled out the number six. Miss Bruce retrieved number six from the pile — the little block of riverbed. Keep cool, Jimmy. One wrong move and the jig is up. I unwrapped it, acted mildly interested. “Oh, an erector set.”
After school I went straight to my room, played with my new toy on the floor next to the far side of my race car bed. The bedroom door opened.
“How was your day?” my mother asked.
“Was today Secret Santa?”
“Well what did you get? Let me see.” She walked around the front of the bright yellow race car, saw the erector set scattered on the shag carpet.
“It wasn’t my fault, Mama. I got the number six.”
“I told you that you couldn’t have that!” she screamed, her face bright red. “No! No! No!” She grabbed my wiffle ball bat. I covered up. “No! No! No!” she screamed again, pounding the handle of the bat on the front of my race car bed like she was stabbing it. “You lied to me! All you think about is yourself! You lied! ” She hit my bed so hard that the bat went through the plywood. She cried, threw the bat on the floor and stormed out.
Saturday came, the big concert. My mother and sisters dropped me off backstage and hurried to find seats. Miss Bruce was not backstage. Another teacher approached me.
“Are you lost, honey?”
“I’m here for the concert.”
“We’ll be starting soon.”
“What should I do?”
“Well, you should go find your family and take your seat.”
“But I’m in the concert.”
She looked surprised, concerned, apologetic, confused, and sympathetic all at once. “Oh, honey. The sixth graders are performing. You just got confused. I’m sorry.” I began to cry — not cry, bawl. Another teacher ran over.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, somehow he got confused and thought he was in the show.”
“Aw, it’s okay, honey. Do you want to sing?”
“Okay, you can sing. It’s Christmas, right?”
I nodded again.
“Do you know any of the big kids?”
I pointed to Chucky Cosentino, Eddie’s big brother.
“Chucky, come over here please.”
“Hey, Jimmy, why you crying?”
“Just a little mix-up. Chucky, will you be Jimmy’s buddy? Stay with him on stage and share your lyric sheet?”
“You gonna sing with us? Far out.”
We took our places on the risers. The sixth graders dwarfed me, but Eddie spotted me next to his brother. He waved furiously, jerked on his mother’s arm, pointed and waved some more. “Pine cones and holly berries….” we sang, and then we all went home to the bright fireplaces shining in our faces, waiting for Christmas day.