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The earth-shattering moment had arrived. My entire fate as a preschooler rested in the soft folds of a red-and-white-striped felt top hat and a handful of carefully-folded bits of scrap paper. I quivered in a mixture of dread and excitement, close to jumping up and down regardless of my cross-legged position on the corner of the story rug. In an effort to remain calm, I nibbled on the tip of my blonde, beribboned ponytail in direct defiance of my mother’s rules about keeping my saliva where it belonged.
It’s funny how such a simple thing as a Christmas nativity play could bring such anxiety into my five-year-old heart. Somehow, in my young mind, I had utterly convinced myself that this pageant was an ultimatum on my happiness. It would be my last chance to belong among the other pre-kindergarten girls, the girls who played House and filled up the pretend-food area so that the teacher told us that only eight people could play there at once. I was almost always the ninth person.
I’d never been a truly shy child, at least not the type to cower and tremble behind my parents’ legs in the face of a stranger. I yearned for friends, playdates, and invitations to birthday parties. My miserable track record with such things must have had something to do with my aversion to that dreaded pastime...House. No matter how hard I tried, I could never reap amusement from the practice of rattling around strangely fluorescent plastic “food” in imaginary dishes as the mother, scrunching up in a straining wooden cradle as the baby, or, at worst, sniffing and clomping around on all fours as the dog. After a few valiant tries (and the passage of the eight-person rule), I’d given up forcing myself into the little group, and instead spent the play periods squishing Play-Doh or pushing wooden trains alone.
Today, however, I decided that this Christmas play was going to make a difference. I would get to be an angel with the rest of the girls, gliding in a neat line of gauzy white fabric and tin foil, and finally become a part of their circle of friends. Or, if I was exceptionally fortunate, I would get picked to be Mary, and sashay down the church isle in the light blue veil, admired and smiled upon by the whole class. I had almost ceased to pay attention entirely, lost in fantasy about me as Mary, when I heard a familiar voice of kindly authority.
“All right class, it’s time to start listening.” My teacher that year, Mrs. Redden, sat down in her usual storytelling rocker and held up the large top hat, shaking it so we could hear the brushings of the papers inside. “Today, we get to draw for parts in the Christmas Pageant. When it’s time to draw for a part you want, please raise your hand, and I will write your name on a slip of paper. The first person whose name I pick out of my hat will get the part. No trading.”
By then the classroom noise had simmered down to an excited flurry of whispers.
“Okay, who would like to be Mary?”
Every girl in the class, including me, raised their hands. It was to be expected.
Mrs. Redden took a moment to remove the boys’ slips from the hat, and then shook it around several times, careful to mix its contents to our satisfaction.
“And our Mary this year will be…”
A dramatic pause.
Maggie smiled and wriggled happily as the rest of us sighed in soft unison. Oh well, I thought, I can still be an angel. Joseph and three wise men were chosen quite quickly (with considerably less enthusiasm on the boys’ part, I might add). I waited patiently for my next turn in the hat.
When Mrs. Redden asked about angels, all of the girls, naturally excluding Maggie, raised their hands again. We were told that there would be seven angel parts.
I held my breath as the angels were chosen, one by one. A selected girl would giggle and grin at her fellow angelic friends, already daydreaming of silver tinsel halos. At last, the angels had all been picked, and I was the only girl remaining. Again. I fought desperately against the stinging bubbles of tears gathered behind my eyes (for in the cruel, cruel preschool world, the only thing worse than a loner or a troublemaker was a baby).
Smiling, Mrs. Redden concluded, “Well, there we have it. If your name wasn’t picked, you get to be (here she paused again—in effort, I suppose, to build suspense where there was none)...a shepherd!”
Indifferently, I twisted around to glance around at the four boys who were to be my fellow shepherds. One had his index finger halfway up his nose, staring spacily out the window. Two more were having a mild wrestling match on the back of the rug. The last was dozing off upon a stack of pillows.
The next day, Mrs. Redden gave us an abbreviated speech on the details of the pageant. It would be presented in the church on the Sunday before Christmas. This was due to the fact that the “real” pageant that would be performed on Christmas Eve, and some students at my church’s preschool attended another church regularly. The pre-threes and four-year-olds were to sing songs with us, which was about all they were up to, and as the “big kids”, or the junior kindergartners, we would act out a wordless nativity scene towards the end. The music teacher would narrate the Christmas story while the audience sang, “Silent Night”, as we walked in.
We didn’t have to wait long before being given our costumes. Mine was a thick blue-and-white-striped tunic with a matching veil-like hat, which was really a towel held on with a thick elastic band clamped around the top of my head. All the shepherds were also given crooks, or tall sticks with hooks forged out of duct tape. The boy shepherds promptly began a sword fight with their crooks, causing a sharp-eyed teacher to take them away from all of us. Meanwhile, across the room, the other girls twirled around in beautiful robes of cool white sheets, or in Maggie’s case, soft blue flannel. I sighed deeply and waited for class to be over.
On the day of the pageant, I arrived in my classroom early settled in the corner, watching as the other girls arrived one by one, grinning at their floppy wings while the preschool teachers carefully pinned tinsel in their hair. I clumsily pulled on my costume, tugging the tunic in place and snapping the elastic over the hat, and pretended they were a gown and a halo. When that didn’t work, I simply looked away and waited for the shepherd boys. They never came.
As time passed, a panicked-looking teacher ran into the makeshift dressing room. As I listened in, she frantically informed my teacher that the boys who were supposed to be my fellow shepherds had been wiped out by the flu. The throwing up kind. I wasn’t sure what to think or do, so I assumed it would be the same as in our practice run, with less people. Nobody bothered to tell me, so I hoped for the best.
At last, it was time for the pageant. The shepherds were to come in last, so I got in the back of the line stretching away from the center isle doors in the sanctuary. Mary and Joseph were in the lead. Everybody else prattled excitedly for a while, until a teacher let out a good “SHHHHHH!” and the chatter died down to a nervous whisper.
After what seemed like an eternity, the audience broke into a loud chorus of “Silent Night”. Our part in the pageant had begun.
Everything seemed to go as planned. Mary and Joseph walked down to the makeshift manger area near the altar, Maggie cradling a swaddled plastic baby doll courtesy of our one and only classroom House area. The angels came next, followed by the wise men. Soon, I was the only kid left, gazing out at the wide expanse of carpeted aisle.
A well-meaning teacher of another class gave me a gentle shove, and my feet began to move. I nervously scanned the crowd to find my parents, and then, failing that, fell into a trancelike stupor. The manger seemed like a fuzzy mirage in the far distance. I was dimly aware of other kids’ smiling relatives, turning to me from the group of wise men settling down onstage. About a dozen camcorders followed my steps as I continued to tiptoe cautiously forward. A flash from somebody’s camera temporarily blinded me.
I don’t know whether it was the stars I saw from the flash or a result of my dreamlike daze, but suddenly, I snapped out of my reverie. I saw the candles and the wooden manger and the people smiling at me. I saw my dad waving from somewhere near the front. Breaking into my signature crooked grin, I picked up the pace, and thought of something that hadn’t occurred to me before. Maybe...it was okay to be slightly odd. I was who I was.
And, just for a second, I didn’t mind being the only shepherd, the one who was different.
Just for a second.
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