Ernest and Edward Rousek, December 25, 1937
Ernest and Edward Rousek, December 25, 1937.

The last part of November was preparation time for the big Christmas program at my country school. A cedar tree would be cut from one of the surrounding hills, by one of the men on the school board, and set up in the schoolroom. It would be decorated with strings of popcorn and cranberries and paper chains. Some candles would be clipped to the branches—but never lit. The dry cedar would have made a great bonfire. Since the school did not have electricity, no electric lights were used. I don’t even know if there were such decorations then. To this day, when I smell a cedar tree, it brings back those school days.

A wire would be strung about eight feet high across the room, about 10 feet from the blackboards. Pupils would be asked to bring sheets to hang from the wire to form a stage. We would take time from our studies to memorize our lines and songs.

It was customary for each pupil to give the teacher a gift, such as a handkerchief or coffee mug. When I was in seventh grade, my mother, being a very practical person, bought a slip for my teacher gift. My protests that it was not proper for a thirteen-year-old boy to give underwear to his teacher were dismissed, saying that with the poor pay that teachers get, she probably needed something more useful than a handkerchief or cup.

With the slip wrapped as a present, I trudged to school. Oh, the misery, I could just picture my teacher, thanking the kids for their handkerchiefs and cups on the day of the program, holding up the slip for all to see, saying, “Thank you, Ernest,” while I died of embarrassment amidst the snickers of my schoolmates. I walked to school past the Mason farmstead, kicking dirt clods in frustration.

The Mason’s farmstead was about 100 yards from the county road, and as usual, their dog—a big, rangy wolfhound type—set up a frenzied barking when he spied me. Suddenly, his barking gave me an idea.

Let me see—“Mom, this morning as I was walking past the Mason’s, their mean old dog they have, he has always hated me.” Might as well dress it up a bit—“He was crouched in the weeds by the road, and he came roaring out at me with his huge fangs, and to protect myself I shoved teacher’s present into his mouth, and he clamped his teeth over it and bounded off into the cornfield. I was very lucky to have escaped with my life.” That sounded pretty reasonable to me. But—wait, what will Mom do after she hears my tale of woe? She will immediately go to the party-line phone to give Mrs. Mason a piece of her mind regarding their mangy mutt scaring her son to death and running away with ladies’ underwear. No—this story would not hold water.

I continued on to school and shoved my present behind the tree, hoping maybe it would just be overlooked and not found.

The fateful day arrived. Parents seated themselves in the room. Some of the more rotund sat on the tops of desks instead of on the seats. Christmas carols were sung. Two other seventh graders and I had been roped into singing “We Three Kings.” This song was not familiar to any of us, and I am sure that the audience was just as relieved as we were when that debacle ended. I recall another song, which, looking back, seems out of place, regarding “Little Will.” Give him a hammer and lots of tacks, also a ball and a whip that cracks. Hammer? Tacks? Whip? To a little kid?

The program being over, it was time for Santa. Sometime before, I overheard the teacher, who was only a year or two out of high school, pleading with her slightly older brother to be Santa. Only after his sister emptied the change out of her purse to give to him did he agree. Some kids said they saw a man enter the boys’ outhouse, but Santa came back out. Santa proceeded to hand out sacks of candy, usually with an orange or an apple.

Then it was time for present distribution. Usually some parents brought a few small gifts for their own kids. These were handed out by Santa.

Then it was time for Santa to hand the teacher gifts from her students. The handkerchiefs and cups were handed out, but my present was not there. My hopes rose, but Santa saw it hidden behind the tree where I had stashed it, and he retrieved it and handed it to the teacher. I cringed down in my seat, thankful that Christmas vacation was starting the next day and it would be two weeks before I would have to face my adversaries. Maybe all would be forgotten by then. The teacher placed my present on her lap, partly opened it, and saw what it was. She reclosed the package and went over to my mother and quietly thanked her. I heaved a sigh of relief. What a great teacher.