Christmas at Pearl School
April 14, 2006
by Elsie Pankowski
Great Falls, Mont.
Pearl School stood on a small knoll at the corner of a western North Dakota school section. A graveled township road passed on the south. Otherwise, wheat fields surrounded the yard. As a first grader, the school’s one main room seemed huge, but when I came back to visit as an adult, it had shrunk considerably.
Each year our one teacher taught all eight grades and filled Pearl School with festive activities before Christmas. An elaborate program was always scheduled, and we started to plan and practice around the first of December. Carols were rehearsed during our music class, and tree decorations and cards designed and assembled during Art. For days, we rummaged through our homes for just the right prop or costume, and our mothers knew they would have to contribute white sheets for stage curtains. All dug out the bluing and sent their whitest because they would be hung side-by-side with the best housekeepers’ sheets in the district.
As the program came together and I learned my lines, I repeated them (as well as everyone else’s) to my patient mother. This went on night after night while she cooked or we washed and dried dishes, until there must have been no surprise left when the actual event came about.
Day after day, we sang songs like “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” accompanied by hands cupped behind ears during “lean your ear this way” and index fingers warning in unison to “Don’t you tell a single soul what I’m going to say.” “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Joy to the World” and “We Three Kings of Orient” were old standbys. I remember singing “Star of the East” with my cousin Rose and being thrilled because the audience seemed to appreciate our performance. The carols were sung a cappella. I don’t remember a piano or any other instrument around, except “Tonettes,” the simple flute-like instruments which most little country schools had back then.
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Finally, on the last night before school vacation, the event took place.
Depending on the amount of snow that covered the two miles of trail, my dad either warmed the car or hitched the team to a covered sleigh. The night usually loomed clear and cold. Our boots squeaked in the snow as we loaded up, and millions of sparkles filled the sky.
We arrived at the school where big windows cast light and warmth across the playground. Parents greeted parents, and we children went behind the curtains to giggle and prepare the set. We always put on a play and a couple of skits, as well as our musical numbers.
There were usually less than 10 of us, so we sometimes had to portray more than one part in the same play. I remember being a stiff-backed toy soldier and a leaping jack-in-the-box. Once, the teacher dressed my cousin, Joe, who was a handsome fair-haired child, in her suit and feathered hat and applied makeup. He made a most beautiful lady. His mother sat in the front row with tears in her eyes. After a long string of sons, she had lost a baby girl a couple of months before.
Our parents should have received Oscars for the best audience of the year. We always felt as if we had performed superbly. Then the candles clipped to the Christmas tree were lit, and we passed out gifts to the child whose name we each had drawn. We ate potluck, the parents chattered together and all too soon, it was time to leave.
As my father drove, I cuddled between him and my mother, and we relived the high points of the evening. Then, one of us began a Christmas carol and we sang our way over the hills toward home.