When I was eight years old and in 3rd grade, I nearly completely torpedoed the Christmas Pageant at my school. I did it using a brand-new superpower that I’d only recently discovered: consent. By refusing to consent to a silly group dance that I found demeaning and humiliating, I found within myself a steely core of dignity, authenticity, and empowerment.
I hated Corpus Christi so, so, so much
My family was military, so we moved around a lot. When I was eight years old, that meant moving to Corpus Christi, Texas.
I don’t know what that city is like now. In my memory, though, it is a dusty, dry, desert moonscape of blasting heat and bad neighborhoods.
Worse, the city’s government was undergoing some radical shifts in its education program involving integration. In fact, Corpus Christi’s school district was the one in the 1970 Supreme Court case Cisneros v Corpus Christi Independent School District. Using Brown v Board of Education of Topeka as a guideline, this decision extended protection to Latino students as well as Black students.
To better integrate schools, the district’s leaders decided to split grades and shuffle students around. Even grades went to one school, while odd grades went to another. My sister and I were just one year apart in grade, so that meant she got to walk to the school right down the road from our home, while I got to take a school bus for almost an hour to get to a school in the city itself.
I hated this school with a passion. It was absolutely huge and sprawling, so I got lost constantly in it. I didn’t know any of my fellow students very well, and I didn’t enjoy any of the schooling. The whole year is a blur. I remember only a couple of things that happened that whole year.
One of those things was winning an art contest for the Scholastic Book Fair.
The other was almost destroying the school’s Christmas pageant.
I got chickenpox as an early Christmas present
Somewhere around mid-fall, I came down with an absolutely scorching case of chickenpox.
Imagine my surprise to learn, decades later, that there’s now a vaccination for kids for this awful disease! But back then, it was almost a rite of passage. Many parents deliberately exposed their children to chums who came down with it. Nobody seemed to know then that chickenpox becomes shingles, which can cause a slew of horrifying problems of its own. (And yes, I came down with a bad case of that, too, in my early 30s. If you’re older and had chickenpox, please get vaccinated for shingles!) Or maybe they knew, but didn’t care.
Either way, I don’t think my parents deliberately did anything. Both my sister and I came down with it in quick succession. Hers was a light case, and she was back to school pretty quickly. Mine was not light at all, and I was out of school for weeks.
Even when the worst of it went away, I wasn’t cleared to return to school until almost the end of the fall semester. Oh, what happy days those were, that week or two that passed between feeling better and having to go to school again!
But when I got back, I learned that my grade was finishing up the last touches on its contribution to the school’s big Christmas Pageant.
Then I discovered what my grade was doing for the school’s Christmas pageant
All the grades were doing something for this Christmas pageant. Most planned to contribute holiday songs with coordinated dances.
For our contribution, the third-grade teachers had decided upon the song “Jingle Bell Rock” for our contribution. It was the classic 1957 Bobby Helms version, not the marginally-cooler Hall & Oates version that would come out years later in 1983.
And yes, the third-graders had this dance to perform during it.
On my first day back, the teacher had me just watch what the rest of the kids was doing. So I sat on the sidelines and nodded along with the music. It was new to me, so that was interesting at least.
Then, suddenly, the entire group of kids began wiggling their rear ends at the audience. They each stood there, backs turned to the audience, and wiggled their butts in a very exaggerated way.
In fact, this move turned out to be a signature part of the choreography. They did this about four times total, each time wiggling harder and harder.
To say that I was, by the end of the song, all but fused to the ceiling in the key of AW HELL NO would be the mildest of understatements. I was just aghast.
When I realized that my teacher was asking if I could learn this dance by the end of the week, I freaked right out.
I refused to do any of this Christmas dance
All my life, I’d been a good girl at school. Obedient, quiet, kind, more or less tractable, and as hardworking as I absolutely needed to be to pass classes with good grades. I saw teachers as authority figures, and having grown up in an authoritarian family, that meant that their word was law. Rebellion was not in my nature.
But on the spot and in an instant, I became a resolute, stone-hewn, axe-wielding guardian standing watch at the edge of the world.
No. I could not and would not submit to the indignity being asked of me.
No. I refused to perform the dance, to learn the dance, even to consider joining my classmates in performing this awful dance.
My teacher probably had no idea what to do with my sudden change in demeanor.
Nothing dissuaded me. I didn’t care if the rest of the kids didn’t like me for not participating. Didn’t care that all the parents wanted to see us perform this exact dance. And when she threatened to put me on stage and see if peer pressure could force me to dance, even poorly, I told her that I’d just stand there and not move a muscle and stare at the audience.
When she realized she couldn’t change my mind, she tried to enlist my mom’s help.
My mom gave me a very human Christmas miracle
For her own part, Mom had also always been a good girl at school. Much like me, she’d grown up in an authoritarian family, then went to authoritarian Catholic girls’ schools till she graduated high school. So she’d been taught to obey teachers in all things.
But when she heard what the problem was, she backed me to the hilt.
To. The. Hilt.
She told the teacher that if I didn’t want to dance because I found the dance humiliating, then it probably was humiliating. She wouldn’t force me to do it.
As my mom defended my decision, I began to glow like a star. Like a star!
Even now, the memory of that one-sided phone call brings tears to my eyes.
What Mom understood and the teacher didn’t
For years, my mom had been cultivating a quiet feminism under that placid, obedient surface. She understood the importance of bodily autonomy, self-sovereignty, and consent, perhaps better than most normies did in the 1970s.
But she understood it at an instinctive, bone-deep level that was hard for her to discuss and express in words. Mostly, she showed the value of this superpower through her actions and in her solid, consistent, meaningful support for whatever my sister and I wanted to do with our lives.
In fact, if you like my writing, then you have her to thank. When my family was broker than a joke in the 1980s and she found out I wanted to be a writer, she somehow found the money for an electric typewriter so I could create more easily than with her old manual one.
But back then, her support meant not forcing her daughter to degrade herself for the brief entertainment of strangers.
Now the teachers had some choices to make
Apparently, the school had made it a rule: all the kids in the grade had to participate in their grade’s entry. So I had to do something. The teachers couldn’t just let me out of doing anything at all.
And my teachers needed to figure out what I could do before the other kids, restively noticing my refusal to participate, got certain ideas into their own heads. Every moment that passed with me at loose ends meant more chances for those ideas to sprout to life.
The teachers clearly got together behind the scenes to discuss the matter.
In short order, they presented an alternative to me:
Would I perhaps be willing to be the announcer for my grade’s dance?
And a lifelong love of performing was sparked that very moment
I’d performed in various venues before in my life. Previously, that meant group performances. Over the years, I’d waved at people from parade floats. And I’d sung holiday carols for local TV stations’ holiday commercials. So if the teachers expected performance anxiety to freeze me solid, it did not.
Instead, I dizzily contemplated the idea of performing alone in front of
millions thousands hundreds of people.
I wasn’t scared.
Rather, I was completely exhilarated.
Breathlessly, I nodded my assent. The teachers quickly cobbled up little script cards for me to read at the podium before my classmates took the stage.
Sure, nothing new goes smoothly all the time
On that fateful night, I got dressed up in holiday colors: red plaid pants, a green long-sleeved pullover mock-turtleneck, shiny black shoes. I clutched my little script cards from stage left as the previous skit’s kids left the stage and teachers tidied it up for my grade’s dumb dance.
And then, my heart in my throat, I scooted to the podium, hopped onto the little step-stool in front of it, and recited my lines.
I read four notecards’ worth of lines in, I kid you not, ten seconds flat and in a near-mumble, then skittered back offstage like a beetle scared of sudden light.
A concerted cluster of teachers blocked my escape. As I looked up at them, they asked me to go back out and do it again, but more slowly. Nobody in the audience, it turns out, had had any idea what I’d said.
Feeling obligated by honor itself, I strode back out with as much dignity as I could cobble together, slowly read the lines, saw people nodding in the audience as they understood, endured a bit of good-natured laughter at my expense, and strode back offstage.
My classmates glared a bit at me as they filed onto the stage amid the opening strains of the song, but I didn’t care.
Since then, I’ve never lost my taste for performance.
A Christmas lesson: What parents teach their kids matters
That Christmas pageant turned out to be a very formative event for me. In the years to follow, I never lost my sense of dignity and my insistence on fair treatment. They became a core part of who I am as a person.
There were a few lamentable years when I temporarily buried them under fear, sure. Happens to the best of us. But they were always there, flickering feebly in the darkness, just waiting for me to breathe new life to them and pick them up again.
Really, it didn’t take me all that long to realize that every time I ignored dignity and fairness, I got myself into a lot of trouble and looked ridiculous in the process. By the end of college, I’d figured it out.
I’m very thankful that my mom was so dedicated to the ideals of feminism. Through her quiet teachings and her steadfast example, I learned so much that has served me in good stead over the years.