The Nutcracker Chronicles: The Year I Almost Played Clara

As you may, or may not, know...

Playing Clara in The Nutcracker is a big deal.  A super big deal.  Just ask around.  You'll see.

This particular year, the part of Clara was being played by a little girl named Tabitha.  She was a very sweet little girl...  Now she is somewhere out there as a sweet (hopefully still sweet) twenty something.

She and Sam, the boy who was playing The Nutcracker Prince, took their roles very seriously.  (I suspect they had been reading Harry Potter and they knew they were just like head boy and head girl.  Which they were.  Which also makes me Professor McGonogall.  A fact I am oh so very okay with.  She is sooo cooool...  But I digress.)

Tabitha and Sam rehearsed lines relentlessly.  They were in the same class, so every spare moment was spent running lines.  They were so, so proud to have the leading roles in the school play.  So earnest, so passionate.  I pushed them pretty hard, as was my style, and they thrived.  The pressure made them feel so grown up and important.  Man, they were hard core.  I love that age when kids are still kids, but are right on the cusp of a new phase.  Getting ready to break out of that cocoon of childhood, and spread their wings into the great big blue of intense, pubescent, awkwardness.

Love it.  

It was the evening of the performance.  Like she did every year, Principal Judy had reserved a school bus for the evening to go to all of the bus stops and pick up families who didn't have cars.  Don't let that surprise you, Gentle Reader.  There are a lot of people out there that can't afford a car.  Lots.  And their kids still deserve the chance to shine on stage.

But this year, unlike other years, the bus was late.

And then later.

And then much, much later.

The bus was so late that it was becoming clear that it just was not coming.

This was a disaster.  Half of our kids were not here.  Including Tabitha.  Our Clara.  And she's kind of important.

Sam was frantic.  "Miss Spradlin!  Tabitha isn't here!  Tabitha isn't here!  What do we do??"  His breath was coming in shallow gasps and the panic had made his voice higher than usual.  (Or maybe that was just because he was an eleven year old boy?)

"Sam."  I said firmly, forcing him to look in my eyes.  "It's going to be okay.  I'll play Clara."

His countance immediately changed.  A wide grin spread over his freckley face.  "Cool."  He said.  It was clear that Sam was amused, and very excited at the thought of playing opposite Miss Spradlin for the evening.

The curtain was to go up in twenty minutes and even without a busload of parents, the gymnasium was filling fast.

I tore into my classroom where Tabitha's costume was.  We always used the same white party dress for the role of Clara.  Our librarian had found it at a second hand store and it was perfect for the role, as well as being generously cut.  I know about the generously cut part because I was able to wrestle the child's size party dress over my head and squeeze into it.  True, the dress hit all the Claras at about mid-calf, and was now skimming the tops of my knees...  But it would have to do.

I went back into the hallway, hoping against hope to see Tabitha.  But instead, I saw my then boyfriend, now husband Chris and our friend David striding down the hall.  They had left directly from work and driven from Oklahoma City an hour and a half away.  And...  were still wearing suits and ties.  Wow.  Did they stick out.

Chris's eyes widened as he took in my pretty, poufy party dress.  "Hi..."  He said in a voice that made his greeting sound more like a question.  "What are you wearing?"  David's eyes had completely disappeared he was smiling so big at the sight of me in that dress.

I hurriedly explained about the bus.  About our lack of a female lead.  About how I couldn't believe that I could fit into this dress.  About how I was going to be Clara.

Meanwhile, my friend and colleague, Clara (I know.  funny huh?  Nutcracker story...  friend named Clara...  this joke just doesn't get old, does it?) hastily left her group of Flowers (she was not being in charge of the Sugarplum Fairies again.) to drive to Tabitha's house and see if she could be found.  When she drove up to Tabitha's house...  Seriously.  Up to the house.  Like, on the lawn.  Tabitha was standing outside, in the dark, in the cold.  Waiting for a bus that would never come.  Her parents were not home, I don't know where they were.  I do, however, know where they were not.  They were not sitting on a folding chair in a gymnasium, smiling up at a red velvet curtain, clutching a bunch of daisies wrapped in cellophane, proudly telling everyone sitting around them that their daughter was the star of the show.  No.  They were most definitely not.  Where were they?  Meth lab?  Bar?  Black tie charity event benefiting hurricane survivors? Who knows?  As a rule, I try not to pass judgment on others.  I try to believe the best of people.  Sometimes...  that's really hard.

I sent Chris and David into the gym to get seats, David grinning as big Sam...  Both happily anticipating Miss Spradlin's debut as the leading lady...  The bossiest Clara in Nutcracker history.  Pausing in between lines and playful banter with her Nutcracker Prince to direct the choir and the xylophone ensemble.

Still in the hallway wearing my knee length gown...  Waiting.  Hoping.  Shooting panicked glances at the clock.  Fifteen minutes.  Twelve minutes.  Ten minutes.  Eight minutes.

Then my two Claras came skidding around the corner.  Both at a dead run and gasping for breath.  Tabitha's eyes were wild, and she began frantically explaining herself before she even reached me.  "The bus never came, Miss Spradlin!  The bus never came!  I waited and I waited!"  The poor baby was terrified I was going to be mad at her.

"I know, I know!  Hurry!"  I shrieked.  The Claras and I sprinted into the music room.  I tore off the party dress and crammed Tabitha into it.  Did we even have time to put stage make up on that girl?  I don't remember.  It was literally a blur.  A blur of white gauzy polyester, a sea of shocked and giggling little girls who just saw Miss Spradlin in her underwear, Tabitha's wide blue eyes, and Clara's voice saying, It's okay, Tabitha.  You're here.  You're here."

We ran to the gym, Tabitha to the back of the stage, me to the front.

And we opened the curtain.

You would think that being so frazzled, Tabitha would have missed lines, forgotten cues.  But she didn't.  That was one tough little girl.

The show was fantastic, as it always was.  Sadly, there were only half of the performers on stage as there usually were.  The chorus was sparse.  Not many mice.  But they gave it their all.

I dreaded school the next day. Someone in the district's transportation office had made a mistake and our bus had been cancelled.  (Don't worry though.  By the time Principal Judy got off the phone, they sincerely wished they hadn't.)  I could hardly stand the thought of facing those kids who had waited out in the cold for the bus.  I was expecting dejection.  Anger.  But what I got was even worse.

They weren't even phased.  These kids were so used to disappointment...  Being let down was just a normal part of their little lives.  They listened to my explanation, shrugged, said "That's sad.  I really wanted to be a Russian Baker this year."  Then just went on with their day.

The calm acceptance broke my heart more than anything.

I never saw Tabitha after she finished fifth grade.  I don't know if she graduated high school, if she was able to hold onto that passion.  I hope so.  When I think of her, I like to imagine her in a dorm room...  Stretched out on her little twin bed, ankles crossed in the air...  eyes closed in concentration, lips murmuring slightly...  memorizing her lines for her next starring role.

Tabitha as Clara and Sam as the Nutcracker Prince.
Our very small crowd.  We are usually a fire hazard nightmare.  People standing against all the walls, sitting on the floor, blocking all the aisles...  don't tell the Fire Marshall.

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The Nutcracker Chronicles: The Year Principal Judy Saved the Nutcracker

Mary and Robert were the Nutcracker Prince and Clara.  They were easily the strongest leads we had ever seen in our little production.  I guess you could say that I hired from within...  They had been a couple of my little super stars their entire elementary school career.  And I don't mind putting it down in print that they were also two of my favorite students ev-ah.  Because they laughed at all of my jokes and told me that I was pretty.  And that's all it takes, folks.

Okay, not really.

Robert was a fifth grade boy after all, the kid had standards.  I'm pretty sure he would have rather stapled his lips together than pay me a compliment.  Unless it was something like, "Mrs. Evans!  You hit me right in the mouth with the eraser that time!"  Because...  I used to throw erasers at them when they missed their lines in rehearsal.  What?  You don't DO that?  Man, you are missing out on all the finer points of teaching.  Oh, settle down.  It was really more of a gentle toss.  And, believe me.  No children were harmed in this production of The Nutcracker.

I'm a weakling with terrible aim.

But I digress.

So...  Robert and Mary.  Amazing kids. Especially that little Mary...  sweet.  So sweet.  Voice like an angel.  Brilliant.  Dependable.  So talented.  Always late for everything.

We really got each other.  (the late part, people.  the late part.)  She was in every honor choir, xylophone ensemble, and drum group I ever put together.  Mary is probably a drama major at Yale now...

So...  fantastic cast.  Another one of my little music stars, Echo was playing the part of Fritzi...  What, you don't remember Clara's troublemaker little sister Fritzi?  Ahhh...  That's because she didn't have one.  But Echo was wonderful, so I tweaked the script a bit.  Because that's how I roll.

Everything was going great.  Lights went down, the gymnasium was packed, kids were adorable, chorus was rockin', my leading rolls were nailing everything...

But something wasn't right.

I sensed a disturbance in the force.

Well, everyone in the audience sensed it.

I had no idea what was going on, all of my focus was up on the stage.  But there was a rustle and bustle behind me in the audience.  Voices.  Raised voices.  Yelling.  What the???  I turned around to see what the commotion was, and my eyes locked with Principal Judy's.  She was frowning, and motioned for me to stop.



Stop the show??  What the heck is going on?

I motioned for Mary and Robert to stop.  They stood on the stage, perfectly quiet and still.  The whole gymnasium had suddenly grown eerily silent.

Except for that man yelling and cussing.  Perfectly eerie and silent... except for that guy.

Mary's father had risen from his seat, anger etched in the lines between his eyebrows.  Judy motioned for him to sit back down, she was already making her way towards the loud cussing dad.  Or shall we, for the sake of polite conversation, call him Our Most Distinguished and Disgruntled Gentleman?  I like that.  That's his new name.

Judy was making her way determinedly towards Our Most Distinguished and Disgruntled Gentleman.  Frowning, stepping over kids, squeezing in between folding chairs.  Disgruntled Gentleman didn't notice.  He was too busy cussing and yelling.

No one was breathing.  Except for Disgruntled Gentleman, of course.  You have to breathe to cuss at the top of your lungs at an elementary Christmas Program.  Breathing is essential.  He stopped his rant abruptly when Judy's forefinger appeared an inch from his nose.  His head jerked back and his eyes widened in alarm.

"You.  will.  not.  say.  BAD WORDS ANYMORE!!"  Judy growled between clenched teeth.  Her finger punctuating every word in his face.


All five feet two inches of her was furious.  Electric.  Seriously frightening.

Our Most Distinguished Disgruntled Gentleman blinked rapidly.  His Adams Apple bobbed in his throat.  "That guy.  He tried to trip me.  That guy-"  he tried to explain weakly.

"Tch!"  Judy cut him off abruptly with an angry noise.

He fell silent at once.  Our Most Distinguished and Disgruntled Gentleman was under the impression that another member of the audience had tried to trip him with a cane.  That's right.  With a cane.  But the truth was, Disgruntled Gentleman was high as a kite, probably got his feet tangled up in the legs of his chair, and tripped himself.

"You will not say bad words anymore."  Judy repeated firmly.

His head nodded quickly.  "Yes ma'am."  He mumbled.

"Yes what?"  Judy snapped, her admonitory finger still an inch from his face.  "Say it."

"I will not say bad words anymore, ma'am.  I'm sorry."  He was sorry.  That guy was terrified.  We were all terrified.  I suddenly felt very sorry for every kid who had ever faced this wrath from across a desk in the principals office.  Sorry for anyone who had ever taken her parking space at the grocery store.  Sorry for her own children.  Sorry for her husband.  Sorry for any human being on the face of the earth who had ever made the fatal mistake of displeasing this woman.

Judy was...

pissed.  off.

And if you've never seen a pissed off elementary principal...  believe me Gentle Reader.  You don't want to.

She nodded her head curtly at Our Most Distinguished and Disgruntled Gentleman and returned to her seat.  Still, no one moved.  No one whispered.  The folding chairs didn't dare squeak.  Judy motioned to me to continue the show.

So I did.


The rest of the show went off without a hitch.  Perfect.

But through the whole show, my heart was broken.  I was mortified for the little girl whose father was obviously on drugs and had stopped the show.  Mortified.

Kind of puts being embarrassed by your mother dropping you off at school in her house coat into perspective, doesn't it?

The Nutcracker Prince, Mary, and little sister Fritzi.  Oh yah.  And that's me on the floor, bossing around kids.  I mean, directing.

Russian Bakers.

Angel Babies.  Oh my gosh, they're cute.
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The Nutcracker Chronicles: The Year of Dakota

Let me tell you a secret, Gentle Reader.

Teachers don't like every kid they ever teach.

Surprising, I know.  But it's true.

Yes, even elementary school teachers.

I know a lot of people have this idea about elementary school teachers...  That they're Mary Poppins-esque martyrs, that love every child, believe the children are our future...  teach them well and let them lead the way.  Show them the beauty they posses inside...   (you're singing right now, aren't you?)

But here's the devastating, bone crushing, truth.

Some kids are just straight up turds.

That's right.


And if you have children, you should go ahead and assume your kid is one of those turds, go out and get your child's teacher a really nice Christmas gift.  Seriously.  Go.  Right now.

I remember when I was in college.  Idealistic, vivacious, great hair...

Even then, I knew that the girl next to me was in for trouble.  She was convinced she could be besties with every kid she came across.  hmmm....  Remember rule #1?  Yup.  Don't try to be their friend.  She didn't know...  I wonder how her teaching career went?  I hope that she is a fantastic teacher with lots of eleven year old best friends.  And that her lollipop tree in the back yard is flourishing.  And that she rides a unicorn to school every morning.  The end.

But really, Gentle Reader.  That just isn't how it is.  Obviously, a person wouldn't choose the path of teaching unless they truly loved children.  However...

You can't save every starfish.  (Remember that story about the starfishes?  The little boy was walking along the shore, throwing starfishes into the surf.  Then someone comes along, and says, "You can't made a difference to all of the starfishes."  Then the boy picks up a starfish, tosses it into the ocean and replies, "Made a difference to that one."  remember that story?  okay.)

You just can't.

But someone can.  And you just might be that particular child's someone.

It's surprising which kids can grow to love you, to need you.  Sometimes a child can be your starfish but everyone elses turd.  (okay, I didn't see this whole "turd vs starfish" thing coming, but I'm just going to go with it.)  

Or, a kid can be great for everyone else, but hate your guts.  Why?  Who knows.  But they make your life hard.  In which case, it is helpful to have a friendly rapport with the gym teacher, so you can say, "Dodge ball?  Good.  Make sure Tyler S. gets nailed.  That little turd has it coming to him..."  

Just kidding.

Not really.

But I digress...

So, Dakota was one of my starfish.

Tall for his age, quiet, brooding.  Struggled academically.  (Which incidentally, often results in turd like behaviour at school.)  Not what I would call a friendly kid...  Always seemed to be on the outside of things.  He was very frustrating to his classroom teacher.  Didn't do his work, talked back...  you know.  that kid.  But for some inexplicable reason, he wasn't that kid when he was with me.  Dakota was still himself, he didn't magically transform into some little well adjusted future class president or anything...  And he was still a little sassy...  (sassier than I put up with, anyway.)

But there was something...


He was just a little different with me.  Just a little.  Just enough.  I didn't get big hugs.  No declarations of, "You changed my life, Mrs. Evans.  You're the best teacher in the world."  Nothing like that.  He was...  just a little bit happier.  Not a lot.  Just a bit.  He liked to be with me.  Why?  I have absolutely no idea.

So, even though Dakota wasn't the strongest musician in school, I put him in my honor chorus.  (pretty sure he just moved his lips and never sang a word.) I put him in my xylophone ensemble.  (and changed my directing technique so that he had a little extra help for every note he played.)

One day, Dakota came in early to school.  He was very quiet, and wouldn't meet my eye.  "Here."  he said, quietly and placed a small wad of tissue paper in my hand.  I don't even think he stayed in the room long enough to see me open it.  Inside was a small pin.  A little Nutcracker.  I smiled.  I didn't often receive gifts from students.  Drawings, thousands.  But not any actual presents.

Later that afternoon, Dakota's grandmother came in to see me.  He lived with her in a nearby motel, from what I remember...  I don't think he had any contact with his mother and father.  "I just want you to know," she began, "Dakota picked that out for you himself.  He bought it with his own money that he was saving to rent a new video game.  But when he went into the store, he saw that little pin.  I couldn't talk him out of it.  He insisted on buying it for you."
My sweet Dakota...

I still didn't get hugs, no "I love you" like I heard a hundred times a day from the other kids.  But I did catch him smile when he saw me wearing his pin.

After finishing the fifth grade, I didn't see Dakota again.  I was a stay at home mommy with baby Lucas when he came back to the school to see me one afternoon.  I wasn't teaching anymore, so I have yet to see the man he was growing to be, the man he's become by now.

Of course I still have my little Nutcracker pin.  Of course I do.

I smile every time I see it.  And I think of Dakota.

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The Nutcracker Chronicles: The Year of the Naked-Bum Fairies

I have to confess. I think the sugarplum fairies are always my favorite. (shhh... don't tell the Russian Bakers or the Candy Cane Flutes. They don't know.)

The Sugarplum Fairies are just. so. dang. cute.

Every year they would come running onto the stage... white tights, little tulle tutus, tinsel in their hair... And I would have to choke back the sobs. I know it sounds ridiculous...

But they were just so... happy. Beaming. Proud. So confident and beautiful.

Seriously. Brought me to my knees every year. I get teary just thinking about it.

My friend Clara (funny, huh? Nutcracker story, my friend's name is Clara... yah. okay... anyway.) was assigned to be with the first and second grade girls backstage. That was a huge group of little girls for one person to be in charge of. So many tutus, bobby pins, halos... (Man. I need to send Clara a fruit basket or something.) Clara was in the music room with about seventy-five six and seven year old girls. (Oh my gosh. Clara gets two fruit baskets.) She looked up from securing a little halo into place...

And saw a sea of naked children. Leaping. Frolicking. Gallivanting. Showing no regard at all for the social boundaries that keep most citizens clothed.

"Put your clothes back on!" Clara shrieked in horror. Stunned. Dismayed.

"Miss Spradlin told us to! Miss Spradlin told us to! Wheeee!"

Of course, Clara thought they were nothing but a bunch of twisted little liars. Naturally she did. Who on earth would tell seventy-five little girls to run around naked at school?


When I saw Clara later that afternoon, she relayed what had happened during dress rehearsal. "They told me you told them to! Can you believe that?"


Then when I dropped into the office... and the Principal asked me to step into her office... gulp. Nothing good can ever follow the words, "then I got called into the Principal's office."

"Ma-riah." Judy said to me, in a tone that said clearly, "I can't believe I have to even say this to you". She looked at me over the rims of her glasses with exasperation. "You cannot tell little girls to take their panties off at school."


Well, dang. When you say it like that...

"Those little girls were just throwing their panties everywhere! Clara couldn't figure out which pair belonged to which girl. She's certain that some girls did not go home in the same panties they came to school in." Judy shook her head sightly at the thought of children returning home from a day at school wearing someone elses underwear.


And now is the segment of So Many Joyful Noises I like to call, Mariah Tries to Defend her Crazy Self.

So here's the thing.

My wonderful little school. Was a lovely study in diversity. We had beautiful little girls and boys with carroty tops and freckles peppered across their noses. We had gorgeous children of mixed race with great, wide hazel eyes and light mocha skin. We had little girls and boys whose skin was obsidian black, so dark they almost shone. With great big, dark pools for eyes, framed by curly, inky lashes. Beautiful, beautiful children.


When a girl with a dark complexion wears a pair of white tights... You can very easily see her Barbie Princess panties.

I just didn't want the girls to be embarrassed! I didn't want their underwear showing for everyone and their mother, okay??!! Do you know how HARD it is to be a little girl these days? Huh? Do ya? It's hard enough without taunts of, "I saw your Barbie panties! I saw your Barbie panties!" following you throughout your entire school career. One wrong move can devastate a kid's cool factor you know. Annihilate. Destroy. Kill. I didn't want to be the one to blame for little Sally having to drop out of school in the 5th grade because everyone in town had seen her underwear.

In hindsight, yes. I can see that it maybe wasn't the wisest thing I ever did. It was perhaps... imprudent to encouraging all of the girls in my school to ditch their nickers, I'll admit it. I am also quite sorry, because Clara told me that there were many naked little girl bums in my chair. ewwwww...

But honestly, I did it with their best interests at heart.

And that would be the tag line to my story on the ten o'clock news while they showed my mugshot. Yah. I know.

There's a mistake you don't make twice.


The Nutcracker Chronicles: The Fourth Edition

You're so lucky, Gentle Reader.  Because this week, I am going to be reposting a series from the last couple of years.  Because the stories are full to the brim with Holiday Awesomeness...  That's right.  The Nutcracker Chronicles.  You're.  So.  Very.  Lucky.

If you've never heard these stories...  Oh, boy.

Today, I'll share the first two.  Because I am full to the brim with Holiday Awesomeness myself.


It was the year 2000.  I was fresh out of college.  My first year as the music teacher at Remington Elementary was underway.  Now, I'm not usually much of self horn tooter.  But I do have to say...

I was pretty freaking good.

I know, it isn't nice to brag.  But it's just a fact.  I was a really good music teacher.  I'm not afraid to say it.  In fact, I'll say it again.  I was really good.  There you have it.

Here are a couple of rules I lived by when teaching.  They won't tell you this in your music education classes, folks.

1)  Do NOT try to be their friend.  You have friends.  They have friends.  They have friends that are much cooler than you will ever be.  Don't try.  You will just look like an idiot.  A desperate, pathetic, old, idiot.  And desperation in a school setting is like blood in the water, Gentle Reader.  Those little monsters will eat you alive.  Trust me.

2)  It's okay to let the kids think you're a little crazy.  You know...  unpredictable.  Like there isn't anything you wouldn't do.  A loose canon.  Keep 'em on their toes.  It's good for morale.  And fun.  Well, fun for you.

And...  Yah.  That about sums up Miss Spradlin's Rules for Classroom Management.  Don't be their friend, and act crazy.  Ta-da!  With those two simple rules, you too can be a fabulous teacher.

I know that if you happen to be reading this as a past student, or as a past colleague you might be thinking something else.  So for you, Remington Alumni, I will also tell another truth.  Yes, I was a good teacher.  But I was also...

Pretty freaking mean.  It's true.  I was kind of a meanie.  I had super high expectations.  With a couple of exceptions, I am totally okay with that.  There are a couple of circumstances that I wish I could take back...  for example.  True confessions time.  This is not my proudest moment...  While teaching art, there was a little girl who was consistently really, really slow about clearing her desk off for art class.  After telling her to clear off her desk two or three times, and the rest of the class ready to start...  I walked to her desk without saying a word.  Then I silently, without warning, without ceremony, swept my hand across her desk and dumped all of her belongings onto the floor.  Yah...  definitely following rule #1, and #2 that day.  I still feel bad about that particular incident... she looked up at me with these big sad eyes, and I immediately regretted my strict adherence to rule #1 and rule #2...  And helped her pick up her stuff so we could get started.  My armpits are tingling with shame as I type this, I feel really bad about it eleven years later...  But.  I never, ever had to wait on anyone to clear their desk off for art again.  There ya go.  Crazy might not always be pretty, but it usually works.  So to sum up.  My classroom management strategy was...  Mean, mean, mean...  super high expectations...  then after a couple of weeks (or months, depending) ease off the mean.  But always keep those super high expectations.  And, man.  Those high expectations really paid off.

My kids...  I still shake my head at how phenomenal they were musically.  I don't think they had any idea how hard the music was.  Really.  I never told them, so they didn't know.  I just taught them the music.  And they played it.  They didn't just play it, they played the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of it.   Like, "Oh, well here is an incredibly difficult Samba.  Huh?  What level is this?  This piece will take me a week to learn myself...  Can the kids play it?  Let's find out."  Could they do it?  Heck yes.  And they played it.  Rocked it.  Melted my dad-gum face off.

I was an Orff music teacher.  (Okay.  You have no idea what that means.  Carl Orff was a composer and a music educator.  He spearheaded a movement of teaching music that is heavily based in speech rhythms, and that is also heavily percussion based.  And come on.  What kid doesn't want to play drums?  To be "Orff Certified", which I am thank you very much, is kind of a big deal.  It's a pretty rigorous training program.  Challenging.  Fantastic. Expensive.  And incredibly fun.  I was very fortunate to receive a grant from my school district that funded my training through two levels of certification.  The grant funded my training and also turned my music room into a wonderland.  I had enough high quality drums and mallet instruments for an entire classroom of kids to be able to play together.  That is a really big deal, folks.)

So I had a room full of great instruments, quality training, freakishly high expectations, a mean streak, and a screw loose.  And that, my friends...  is the recipe for a dynamite music program.

You're in for a treat, Gentle Reader.  All this week I will be sharing stories about a much beloved tradition that I started at Remington Elementary.  The annual Holiday production of The Nutcracker.  Oh, man.  Hold onto your hats, friends.  Get ready for a week full of crazy directors (well, okay.  just one crazy director.), naked first graders, a hundred tu-tus, sword fights, handmade costumes, a prostitute or two, a battle between a stoned belligerent dad and my hard core rock star of a principal, a cheeky news reporter...  and a partridge in a pear tree.

Tis the Season.


The Nutcracker Chronicles:  The First Year

My five years teaching music was like Camelot.  I loved my job.  I would go to music meetings and hear the other music teachers talk about their teaching situations.  "I have no support from any of the other teachers.  My principal doesn't care about my program."  I just kept quiet.  I didn't want to rub their noses in it, but...  I have never, ever experienced anything like that.  My principal did care about my program.  A lot.  She was (and still is, I'm sure) this wonderful blend of Marry Poppins, your funnest girlfriend, rock star, and a kid's no nonsense-tell-it like-it-is Grandma.


It never even crossed my mind when I told our teachers at a staff meeting what they would be helping me with that they would have the slightest objection.  Of course they wanted to stay late after school to help me make eighty five toy soldier hats out of paper.  Why wouldn't they?  Oh, and yes.  They also would obviously want to be here the night of the performance.  No, not to watch.  To help back stage!  If my colleagues were ever anything except thrilled to be a part of my craziness...  they never let it slip.  That first year, we spent hours making hats out of paper, mouse ears our of felt, headbands of silk flowers, swords out of aluminum foil, halos out of tinsel...  and the tutus.  Oh, great googly moogly.  The tutus.  Every child in the school was in the play, and over half of them were girls.  Girls who wore tutus.

You might think that The Nutcracker is a ballet.  And it is.  It is also a cheesy little children's musical that puts words to the Tchaikovsky melodies. Lyrics about candy canes.  Chinese Tea.  Mice fighting toy soldiers.  You know, that kind of thing.  Through the years, The play got longer, and the story further and further away from the original plot.  Why?  Because I added songs!  Why wouldn't I?  I added xylophone ensemble pieces, created new characters, made a place for my percussion group to play a Samba.  Because I could.  Let me tell you a little secret about teachers.  We're like presidents of our own countries.  Our classroom is our island, and the students are the lucky inhabitants who have to do whatever we say.  We make our little world any way we want to.  Well, I did anyway.  (Of course, always within the acceptable boundaries of good teaching practices, state and national standards, and a constant regard for standardized testing.  Of course.)

I wrote all the choreography.  (if you can call, "turn towards the soldiers and claw your mouse paws at them when you sing, "oooh-oooh"! choreography.) I designed all of the costumes.  (again, if you can call putting felt ears on a kindergartner's head and reminding them to wear gray sweats "designing".)  A couple of years later in my Orff training, I was taught that performances are important for children, but the focus should really be on the music.  That the costumes should be kept very minimal because the focus needed to be the music.  Let the children's imagination be their costume.  In theory, I completely agree.  But...  I am charming, so I argued with her.  She argued back.  We smiled politely at each other and respected each other's opinions.  But I wasn't budging.  My girls were wearing tutus, lady.  And here's why.

Putting on that tulle tutu was the prettiest some of these little girls had ever felt.  On costume days, I had mounds and mounds of tulle.  Huge boxes of leotards.  Some of the girls brought their own from home, but most I had collected from donors through the years.  They would go behind the curtain on the little stage in my classroom and pull on their tights.  Put on their leotard.  Don their tutu.  Suddenly, they were magically transformed.  Some would come out boldly, laughing and twirl around for the other girls.  Some would look down shyly, their faces beaming as everyone cheered, ooh-ed and ahh-ed.  Pink cheeks, smiling...  knowing that they look just like a sugar plum fairy.  They were sugarplum fairies.  I had to blink back tears every time.  Those little girls felt, some of them for the very first time... beautiful.  Graceful.  It was truly a sight to behold.

So here is the thing about my little school.  Some of the kids came from a family a lot like the family my kids come from.  Parents just like me.  Just like you.  We had a group of really wonderful parents.  Moms and dads who were always there to help out, loved and cared for their children, just the way that I do.  But not all of our kiddos had that.  Some had a very rough little lives.  These kids were tough.  They had to be.  No, I am not kidding, and I am not exaggerating.  I had students shocked that no one in my family was currently in prison.  A first grade boy told me he didn't have a dad anymore because a man shot him in the face.  We had kids come to school dirty.  Hungry.  Sleep deprived.

My kids got costumes, dang it.

That first year, a news crew came out the day of our dress rehearsal.  Our gymnasium was our stage, and that day it was filled with sweet senior citizens from a nearby retirement home who had volunteered to make a lot of our tutus.

A bunch of old ladies in the gym.  Kids running everywhere.  Lady reporter with a microphone in my face.  It was pandemonium.

She kept asking me questions like, "Have these kids ever done anything like this before?  What do you think about the community pitching in to help make all this come together?  How much of your personal time have you spent making sure these kids got to have an opportunity like this?"  I could see what she was getting at.  And I wasn't playing.  She was trying to turn this into some heartwarming story for the Holidays, where the brave, young new teacher brings the community together to help the poor kids.  What?  No way.  And seriously, lady.  Those heels?  Do you know where you are?  You're going to trip on a first grader and land on your perfect arse.

My eyes narrowed as her insults sunk in.  She didn't see what I saw.  She just saw a story.  Numbers.  This percentage, that percentage in poverty...  blah, blah, blah.  That is not what I saw.

I saw a little fifth grade girl whose mom came home from a long day at work and helped her daughter run lines over, and over, and over again...  So that she could be Clara.  The lead in the school play.  Has there ever been a prouder mother?  I saw a group of third grade boys who thought Baryshnikov was an athlete who was cool enough and tough enough to play football for OU.  (And man, in this part of the country, that is really saying something.)  I saw small groups of kids who spent every recess going over choreography, determined to perfect every step.  I saw six year old girls, giggling, clutching at each other, feeling beautiful and glamorous in pink tulle.

I squared my shoulders and tried to be polite.   No.  I did not give her what she was fishing for.  I don't remember exactly what I said...  I just remember I didn't like her.  Her or her stupid heels.  No.  These kids worked their freaking tails off.  Learned choreography.  Memorized songs.  Memorized lines.  Put up with me.  There was no way that I was going to cheapen that accomplishment.  I was not going to turn their hard work and passion into a  sweet little story to squeeze in between How to Cut your Energy Bill Down This Season, and the night's lottery numbers.

But they did it anyway.  The only thing of me they ended up putting in the story was a small soundbite of my voice saying, "Ladies from a nearby retirement home made some of the costumes for us." as the camera paned over a row of walkers.  sigh...  ah, well.  They told the story they wanted to tell, but I remember it the way it really happened, and I hope the kids do too.  I was very grateful for the community pulling together, don't get me wrong.  But that was only one small part of our story.

Of course, the kids were amazing.  They killed it.  My principal arranged for a bus to pick up families who didn't have cars, so we had a very, very full house.  Parking-lot-road-rage kind of full house.  But really, what's an elementary Holiday Program without a little bit of parent drama in the parking lot?

Sugarplum Fairies, or course!  (man.  these photos are so bad...  but the kids are sure cute!)
Can you see those socks and boots?  Love.
Sleeping Clara.
I can't believe I made that Mouse King costume.  Yikes!  But just look at those kindergarten mice!  Cute!!!
One of our teacher's little boys.  He's all grown up now!
There's nothing funnier to a 4th grade boy than putting on a tutu...  Good times!

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Days are hectic.  Someone is always getting accidentally (or not accidentally) poked in the eye.  Sometimes it's all I can do to get through the day...

There's homework, and violin practice, and backpacks full of crap I am supposed to look at, and home room mom meetings, and so much freaking laundry I'm pretty sure I need a margarita.  And it's 9:42 am.

When you're in it, it can be difficult to appreciate the every day.  Because you're wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday.  And you're out of tortillas.  

And they will only eat tortillas.

I made this little video for us.  So that Chris and I can see the good parts too.  

Because the old people tell me I will miss this...  

And now I will go forth and Carpe the Double Hockey Sticks out of this Diem.  This crazy, dirty, messy, loud, diem.  With boogers on it.

(if you can't see the above video, try this link.)
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Giddie Up, Megesta!

Horseback riding was one of the things that the boys were looking forward to the most about our Colorado trip.  They're all such animal lovers, especially Lucas.  This was not their first encounter with horses, or their first ride, but it was their longest ride.  At the Devil's Thumb Ranch the children's pony rides aren't just in a circle around the pen.  The boys' horses were still led by an adult, but they each got to ride their own horse and go on trails through the ranch.
Harry's horse was named Boss Hog, or Bossy as Harry likes to call him.  Bossy is the smallest horse in the stables and just right for Harry.

No, I did not make Lucas wear a helmet.  It's one of those riding helmets...  like jockeys wear?  Well Lucas got really excited about it when he saw it in the stables and they let him wear it.  I think he has seen it in a book or on a TV show or something...  
Lucas's horse was Apache.  Chris won the honor of leading Apache, who the nice stable cowboy man informed him was maybe the orneriest horse in the stable.  He liked to eat grass...  A lot.  He wanted to stop and have a snack.  A lot.
Max rode a sweet girl named Magesta.  I know she's a sweet girl because she didn't buck Max off.  I would have bucked Max off if he had been on my back, but I'm not as sweet as Magesta.  For the entire hour long ride Max said, 'Giddie up, Magesta.  Giddie up, Magesta."  Only, he didn't pronounce it correctly.  Because he's Max.  So for an hour, sweet Magesta heard, "Givvie up, Magesta.  Givvie up, Magesta."  Over.  And over.  And over again.  It makes my eyes cross to think about it.  He wasn't demanding about it, didn't kick her in the flanks or anything.  Just quietly.  Sweetly.  Repeatedly.  "Givvie up, Magesta.  Givvie up, Magesta."  At one point, he did take a thin little leather strap from his saddle and to use it to whip her hiney into more of a givvie up kind of pace, but Magesta ignored him.  Because she's a saint like that.
Then these two love birds went off and rode one morning by themselves. And left us alone with our children.  

For reals.  I know.  That is not why we made them go on vacation with us...
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