The Christmas season has zones of anger, aggression, disappointment, and fear. The zones are the crowded places -- the shopping centers, parking lots, post office lines and grocery stores where people must go in their obligatory quest for joy. Get to the store early to purchase your joy, wait in line for your joy, make sure you bring home joy for your family, and be joyful on command while doing it. Time, space and resources are limited, so we end up jockeying against each other in our individual quests for joy, and it can sour a crowd quickly.
I can dodge most zones by planning ahead and avoiding people. But there’s one zone I must enter each year, and it always scares me: the school auditorium for the Christmas Singing Performance.
Lily is in third grade, so this year is my fourth visit. Although it scares me, I’m battle-hardened. Like fathers everywhere, I know my job on this day and I prep for it with grim determination. I get up early, charge the camera battery, make sure I have the long lens, and I’m wearing the right gear.
Robin and Lily are also up early, perfecting Lily’s long hair and steaming the wrinkles out of the outfit for the performance. They’re the show, I’m logistics.
I leave first, with one of Robin’s long scarves. It will be a seat holder. School is close enough that I could walk, but today time is crucial, so I’m driving. My job is simple; to secure two good seats in the auditorium and hold them while Robin gets Lily to class, and then she can cross campus and get to her seat before the show starts at 8:15 a.m.
I see other neighborhood cars with solitary drivers and I know they’re like me. They’re the early planners, those people who decide they want to be the first ones in.
There’s a line at 7:45 for the three hundred seat auditorium, and there’s already a line of eighty people waiting, most of them with tripods and camera bags. People smile and trade pleasantries, but we’re like photographers ready to enter the Olympic Stadium on the day of the 100-meter dash finals. We’re colleagues, but we all want that one special spot. We’re also of like mind; if we plan ahead and work hard, we can grab seats and insure joy for ourselves and our family before anyone else arrives.
The doors open at 7:50, and the first battle begins. Some people are bold and come with six or seven sweaters or scarves and lay them down and fill a row. The best way to hold them is to plop down in the middle seat, get on your cell phone and keep saying, “these seats are taken, these seats are taken,” to anyone who dares approach.
Some make the mistake of putting down several sweaters or jackets, and then leaving. Their “reserved” spots will disappear, and once they return and find five people sitting in their spots, they’ll be lucky if they can shame even one person to give his or her seat up.
I understand the pressure. Grandparents and aunts and uncles are in town, they move slow, they want to see the snowman collage that Class 34 made, and then linger to talk to the children as they prep for the show. That’s where the excitement is, and why they came to school today. They’ll get to the theater when they can.
We, the brave few who breach those auditorium doors first----know what our jobs are.
If we don’t hold the required number of seats, we will have failed in our jobs to ensure Christmas joy for our families. We also know that there aren’t enough seats for everyone who wants to see the show, so we set up our perimeters and guard them.
Then there are the video and camera people. They fight for their position in row four and back, they get their cameras set and they raise up those tripods. They’re gambling; by grabbing the less desirable seats, they figure they can occupy more real estate without too much of a fight. But if you’re in row four or back, you know that the video you are shooting will be too unstable in the close-up, so you need that tripod, damn it, or there will be shaky video to show on Christmas night. By 8:00 a.m., there’s a forest of tripods back there.
I grab two seats in row four, and set down Robin’s scarf to save her seat. I set up my own camera, with no tripod. Instead, I’m wearing my thick jacket, because I can rest my padded elbow on the wooden arm chair and create my own comfortable “mono-pod,” and shoot a steady image. I’ll overheat, but I don’ care. I have to lean into Robin or my neighbor to get my shot, but I’m ready. Tap on my shoulder all you want, tripod boy. I’m doing my lean, and I’m not moving.
At 8 a.m. the second jockeying battle begins. We early settlers, once competitors, now must fight and defend our territories against the interlopers who arrive on-time. We were the busy ants who planned ahead, and now in come the fiddling grasshoppers, only fifteen minutes before the performance, and they’re amazed there are no seats left. Is this your first year, buddy? I feel for you, but we’re taking care of our own right now.
The comments between 8:00 and 8:10 a.m. get aggressive. There are too many people trying to sit in too many guarded seats, and the mom guarding six spots can’t hide in her cell phone anymore, and the dad with the tripod up too high ends up raising his voice as well. The newcomers plead for fairness, and often get rejected.
“Yeah, and Merry Christmas to you too,” often gets said, a few decibels too high and dripping with disdain.
Robin arrives, along with the other moms and dads. People find their seats, or take a spot standing at the back of the auditorium, leaning against a wall. I know the feeling, that’s where I spent my first year.
But there is one more battle. There is a final wave of twenty people who tumble in at 8:14, just before the kids march in. These people are joyful without effort, laughing and waving, and clueless to the unwritten rules of How to Properly Secure Seats for the Grammar School Auditorium Performance. They sit anywhere, right on the hands of the people trying to guard the chairs, ignoring the pounding on their shoulder, while they wave to the other Room Mom six rows back. Or they plop down in the aisles, ignoring the fire codes, or they sit right on the floor in front in front of the stage and yank out their tripods and cameras. They missed a chance for the best seat? These self-appointed VIPs create their own. They also stand their ground, and their behavior is so audacious few people challenge them. Although a murmur of dissatisfaction rolls through the rows, we all just want the bickering to end and the show to start.
Then the principal comes in and grabs the microphone and calms the collective savage beast. Like that poster that reminds us that everything we need to know in life we learned in Kindergarten, the principal turns the first minute of the performance into a gracious thank you to all the parents for coming, and then gives us all a gentle reminder about how and where we sit, why rules are important, and how he’s proud of us for being such good role models for our children. The murmuring goes down, the aisles clear, and the music begins.
And everything changes when the kids come in. Time stops, and we all get our moment of joy, watching our children and their classmates mount the risers and then turn to face us. They peer out into the darkness and then their eyes brighten and they smile and wave when they spot us. They are all dressed up and proud of their work, and they feel safe and loved because they know we are there watching and caring about them.
There’s an empty seat next to me, and the father sitting on the other side alternates between guarding it with his hand and madly texting into his phone. A woman comes in late after pounding on the door, and she makes her way to row 4, and we all go into the half-crouch as she squeezes past us. She collapses into her spare seat, closes her eyes and exhales. There was another child to drop off at another school, but she promised that she would get there and see the performance, and the dad promised that he’d help make it happen -- and she made it, on a day when the world conspired against her. I glanced over and saw her eyes brighten when her child hit the stage, and she waved at her daughter just like I did with mine. Their child spotted her and smiled like the Cheshire Cat, beaming light right back at them. Parenting is showing up, and Mom and dad had made it happen. They’d done well.
The performance was great. Some classes sang in two part harmonies, and in repeating rounds, which isn’t easy, They weren’t just belting it out, they’d rehearsed, and it came out as sweet music. Seventy-five third graders sang as one, which turned all 350 of us in the audience into one, and we embraced the moment.
My fear turns to pleasure on a dime, and I realize both feelings are in my mind, not in the seats or in the people around me. Everything I experienced before was, and is, all in my head.
I suddenly feel regret within my pleasure; she finishes at this school in two years, so there are only two of these performances left. I feel the days and the months racing past, and I need more moments to embrace.
I get a grip and return to the present moment, listen to the music and relax. The children give us all the Christmas joy for which we’d come, and I receive it, with thanks. I am grateful for all I have. Merry Christmas.