Recolections -- Christmas at Jester School

Friday, December 4, 2015
Contributed photo Jester School Students. Unknown year.

Certain smells of cleaning products bring back memories of Christmas at the one room school of my childhood, Jester School, just east of Marshall. What was the soap we put on the windows in order to draw snowflakes and Christmas trees with our fingers? After the holidays, the windows were wiped down, sparkly clean. We swept the floor with a combination of reddish sawdust and oil sprinkled on the wood planks.

No janitor worked for Jester, so our teacher, Mrs. Lilah Stedem, organized the 20 or 30 of us with chores for two school days prior to the annual evening Christmas program. We washed the blackboards, took the erasers outside, hitting them together to bat out the chalk dust, then we took colored chalk and drew Christmas pictures on the south and west walls which were covered with slate.

Of course, we had already practiced, for what seemed like weeks, on the program. We used our "Golden Song Book" to sing familiar carols. "Up on the Housetop" and "Silent Night" never sounded so beautiful to me as when I was a little girl sitting in one of those school desks stabilized by wrought iron legs, fastened to wood runners. There were initials previous occupants carved on the desktops; when you were bored, you ran your pencil down the letters over and over, making deeper grooves.

In the days before the program, every change in the "everyday" schoolroom setting was cause for excitement.

The desks were pushed together to make more room for the festivities. Curtains on a wire across the front of the room could be pulled to create a stage. "Back stage" for waiting performers was behind the piano, pulled away from the wall at an angle. After a short play, risers were put in place behind the curtain and we all assembled to sing together. I well remember one rehearsal. It was the day before the big night when someone behind me on the risers got sick and vomited on me. I was wearing a navy blue wool sweater, and Mrs. Stedem took me back to the water faucet, our one modern amenity, and sponged off my sweater with paper towels. The "sickee" was allowed to put his head on his desk for rest of the day. I still recall how the aroma of vomit lingered with me until I got home.

There was no telephoning mothers to retrieve sick kids or bring fresh clothing as we had no phone! In a true emergency, two of the older kids would walk a half-mile to the neighbor who did have a phone; hopefully, the parents who needed to know about the emergency, had a phone in their home.

Almost always the program included a boy who "spoke a piece," and the piece usually was "The Night Before Christmas," it was a point of pride to speak as fast as possible. The program ended with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus after which Santa Claus passed out fruit and candy. The mothers served hot cocoa and Christmas cookies in the basement following the production.

Strangely enough, no one during the evening Christmas program ever seemed to need to use the facility. A trek to the outdoor toilet was a very cold winter adventure; a night time trip was out of the question. At least on winter school days, the boys did not catch snakes and stand in front of the girls' toilet to torment them.

Another Jester Christmas custom was the gift exchange. The students drew names and put $0.29 gift under the live evergreen tree decorated with our hand-made ornaments.

Tiny bottles of "Evening in Paris" perfume or ball and jacks packets were typical girl's gifts. The boys might get a deck of cards or some marbles.

A strange nostalgia affects me at times when I see a certain muted gray plaid that reminds me of an old school coat or when I smell stale lunch boxes ― these things remind me of the Jester cloak room by the outside door.

When I told my grandsons that I used to color pictures of Lassie while the teacher was working with the other classes, they asked, "Who is Lassie?"

Taken a bit aback, I gathered my thoughts and answered, "A Scotch collie of books and movies who always saved her master from serious trouble."

At times like this, I wonder how my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will talk of good times and Christmases of their youth. The world changes dramatically but, I am sure, with every decade feelings of joy, affection and excitement remain the same.