Here's a piece from a new Christmas story I've written recently. It goes back in time to 1978 and a certain junior school in a town in the North East of England. It's about an amazing teacher who decides to stage a very unusual production for the Christmas concert. (You can read the whole story on my Patreon page - www.patreon.com/Paulmagrs )
Miss Baumgarten’s Trolls
‘Look, Class 6, ’ she said. ‘You have to stand out, you know? You have to do something quite different. And you know what all the others will be doing, don’t you? The usual Christmas rubbish. Dopey Nativities and the same old boring fairy tales.’
We were shocked by this. We’d never heard a teacher talk like this before. Dopey Nativities..?! Christmas rubbish?
Miss Baumgarten always said things the other teachers never did.
Right now – last thing on a November afternoon when it was purple and yellow and stormy outside – she was sitting on Mrs Hellist’s desk and strumming her twelve string guitar. The noise was huge and warm as she tuned up.
We were transfixed by Miss Baumgarten.
Everything she did was surprising and just a bit wrong.
Also, she looked like Barbra Streisand, had a perm, wore a poncho, and carried this guitar everywhere she went.
‘Before we sing the Joni Mitchell song again, I want to sound you guys out about an idea I’ve had for this class’s Christmas show this year…’
We were hanging on her every word. It had been like that for two weeks now, since she had started standing in for our regular teacher. Mrs Hellist’s lessons were usually so predictable and dull. She liked to fill up the board with stuff she was copying out of a book, and we had to race to keep up with her. The best scholars and writers were those who could write as much and as fast as she could. She’d finish lessons looking red in the face and worn out. Perhaps that was why she was taking so many weeks off school?
Lessons with Miss Baumgarten were quite different. We never knew what was coming next.
She strummed her guitar and la-la-la’ed for a while and thought deeply and then she started explaining her great idea to us. And how we were going to be doing an interpretation of a play by a Norwegian called Henrik Ibsen for our holiday spectacular.
No one I knew had ever heard of Henrik Ibsen, and no one thought Miss Baumgarten’s idea sounded very Christmassy.
‘When is it?’ Mam asked, flipping the pages of our kitchen calendar.
‘The last Monday before the holidays.’
She didn’t look keen on coming. Last year she had gone to the concert with Dad, and the year before, but he wasn’t around any more, of course. She wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing Brian would be into.
‘I don’t want to face all those questions and looks,’ she sighed, pursing her lips and writing ‘school concert..?’ in pencil on the calendar. ‘All those nosy teachers and other parents and everyone will be looking and judging. They’ll see I’ve got a different man with me.’
I didn’t say anything. As far as the kids in my class were concerned, the news was already out. I had gone through weeks of being elbowed and hissed at. ‘Hey, is that bloke your new dad? That fella with the green Cortina? Is that your dad now? The bloke with the big beard?’
I kept my head down and didn’t say anything and, of course, this made them ask all the more, and laugh about it. ‘What happened to your real dad, then? Did he run away? Did he die or summat? Who’s this fella with the green car?’
Brian had moved in with us at the start of autumn.
It was weird and I wasn’t used to it yet at all, but I wasn’t going to talk about it with anyone at school.
‘Is it going to be worth coming to see?’ Mam asked, ‘This concert thing? You wouldn’t mind if I didn’t come to see you, would you? I’m not going in there by myself. I can’t do that.’
Mam hated going anywhere by herself, especially when there were people there. She could do the shopping down the town precinct by herself, but that was because she knew where she was going and what she wanted and it was all quick and easy. She went every day to get our food for that day, since we didn’t have a fridge (Dad took it.)
‘The thing you were in last year wasn’t worth seeing,’ she laughed. ‘What were you again? Stood at the back?’
‘A sheep,’ I said.
‘You had that paper mask on. You couldn’t even see it was you.’ She laughed, fetching down pans to start the tea. Findus Crispy Pancakes, beans and mash.
‘I made the mask myself,’ I said.
‘You were still just a sheep,’ she said.
‘But it’s not just the plays,’ I pointed out. ‘It’s a whole evening of festivities. There’s a Christmas raffle, and carols and Mr Robertson does a kind of comedy routine and makes everyone laugh…’
‘Oh, god, yes,’ she shuddered, as the pan began to sizzle. ‘Well, you know. I’m not sure. I might not come to this one. We’ll have to see.’
Miss Baumgarten began rehearsals in earnest.
She clapped her hands loudly, and looked very businesslike, standing at the front of the school hall. ‘We must be very serious about this,’ she said. ‘If we’re going to do this, then we have to do it right. And so all your gym classes are going to become rehearsal hours from now until Christmas.’
I felt like cheering. I could have run to the front of the hall and kissed her.
Gym classes with Mrs Hellist were awful.
She’d had us doing forward and backward rolls and I just couldn’t.
She prodded my bum with her platform boot. ‘Come on, you lazy lump. You can do it!’
The whole class was standing round us. They’d got past doing these rolls straight away. They were already onto vaulting over apparatus and climbing up the walls. I was crunched over in the middle of the shiny floor and everyone was looking and I was, like she said, a big fat lump. Her boot prodded at me and she hooted. ‘You have to try harder! You’re making no effort!’
Miss Baumgarten hated gym classes. ‘You’re not lab rats! You’re individuals! That stuff is no good for you! It’s no good just doing things other people tell you to do! You must learn to express yourselves! That’s the most important thing!’
And so, while she was in charge, that winter, gym classes became Music and Movement.
‘You’ll see, Class Six,’ she grinned, dashing to the record player. ‘You’ll see how all this will feed into our Christmas play, and will enrich your performances.’
She put on a record she had brought from home. The needle hissed and the large speakers crackled.
A kind of jazzy music started up.
She clicked her fingers to the beat.
‘Can you hear it? Can you feel it?’
All of Class Six stood there frozen, staring at her. We were in our sandshoes and shorts and T-shirts and didn’t know what was expected of us.
‘Now, you must MOVE!’ she cried, flinging out her arms and swaying on the spot. Her perm bobbed about and her flowery maxi-dress floated out around her. ‘MOOOOVE, Class Six! Express yourselves, children! Dance just how you want to!’
She had her eyes closed as she demonstrated and we stared in amazement.
‘Think of Kate Bush! Think of Mick Jagger! DANCE like them, children! Do whatever comes into your head! Just let your bodies do their thing…!’
Some of the girls were already moving. Some of them did dance stuff in classes after school.
The taller boys – Andy, Chris, Colin – they were pogoing like the Sex Pistols and making each other laugh.
‘That’s it! That’s very good! Do more of that!’ gasped Miss Baumgarten.
She dashed over to the boys and this startled them.
They were expecting to be told off for being silly, but she was full of admiration.
‘I love it! How creative! You’re dancing punk-style to the sounds of Duke Ellington! How fantastic!’
She clapped her hands busily. ‘Look, everyone! See how these boys are interpreting the music? See their spasmodic, jerky movements and their leaping about! You see? Can we all do that? Do we all want to try that..?’
Yes, we did.
She dashed over to the record player and started ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ again, and then we were all jumping up and down like Sid Vicious, even the girls.
It got hot and sticky in the school hall, pretty fast.
Even Miss Baumgarten was leaping up and down and twitching her arms. ‘Everyone! Do it like this! Like this!’
We still weren’t sure whether we were doing it right. Some of us were giggling and stopping to breathe and clutching our sides. Chris went running around the room doing his monkey walk because he was getting carried away. When Miss Baumgarten saw that she cried out again, ‘Oh, how wonderful! How do you do that, Christopher? Oh, let me try…’
And that was when Mr Robertson came walking through the school hall with his pile of signed registers that he was delivering to each of the classes.
He was already frowning at the noise. The jazzy music was bad enough, but what was all that laughing and carrying on? And the noise of thirty kids jumping up and down on his polished floor?
He marched out into the hall and simply stared. He went a bit red and his eyes bulged out. He didn’t look cross, though. He looked flabbergasted.
Miss Baumgarten noticed him, and stopped doing her monkey walk and dashed over to the record player to turn the volume down.
‘Hello, Mr Robertson! Aren’t the children doing brilliantly..?’
‘Erm,’ he said.
‘Carry on, everyone!’ she cried out. ‘Keep expressing yourselves! Keep on dancing!’
‘What is it supposed to be?’ asked our headmaster, looking worried.
‘Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen,’ she told him, grinning sweatily. ‘With music by Grieg. We’ve decided we’re going rather highbrow for our contribution to the end of term spectacular. What do you think..?’