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.
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.