"What child is this who laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping
This, this is Christ the King
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing
Haste, haste to bring him laud
The babe, the son of Mary..."
December, 1963. I was in Mr. Gaydosh's 4th grade class. We had just survived a collective trauma as a nation, and as a class we listened, wept, talked, and comforted one another, and now, just weeks later...thanks to an enlightened teacher who had his finger on the pulse of our hearts...we were looking for a lasting symbol of our emotional unity.
We thought about writing a letter to the former First Lady, but we wondered if ours would be just one letter of thousands she received, and even if she read it, would we remember our sentiments a month later. We felt as if we were different, more grown up than the giggly nine year olds who'd showed up for the first day of fourth grade only three months earlier.
We'd been through something. Something big. It had made us bigger...less selfish, more aware of heartache, compassion, human kindness and the comfort it would bring to the lives of others. Our moms dressed like Jackie. Caroline was almost one of us...she liked horses and read the same books we read. John John reminded us of our little brothers. We didn't want to forget. Mr. Gaydosh suggested that we write a play that illustrated our new feelings of compassion, friendship and unity, and perform it in the Christmas Pageant. But we couldn't think of a story that would give everyone a part.
Then, one rainy afternoon while we were playing chess in the classroom during recess, my friend Patty had an idea. She suggested that we learn a song together, and perform it in the pageant. She said it should be a song we would never forget so that everytime we heard the words or the music in the future, we would think of what we had been through together.
Mr. Gaydosh thought it was a great idea. Since it was a Christmas pageant, we decided it should probably be a Christmas song. We all suggested our favorites. At the time, mine was The Christmas Song: "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." by Bing Crosby. It was the first song on the album my sister and I listened to each night after lullabies and hymns before we fell asleep. But that was out voted quickly. Some of the others had never heard it, and others had opinions based on good or bad feelings it evoked. Mr. Gaydosh suggested that we try a song that was a "classic," one that few of us knew and therefore had less opinions about, one that was old-fashioned and would be around for many many years,...even when we were his age.
We laughed, none of us could ever imagine being that old. But his idea was good. The next day he brought in an album for us to listen to. On it was the hauntingly beautiful "What Child is This?" set to the music of Greensleeves. Most of us had never heard it, but the music made us feel sad just listening to it, the way losing our president had made us feel. But the words made us feel hopeful and peaceful...kind of quiet and soft inside. The way talking with eachother, about our feelings over the past few weeks, had made us feel.
It was unanimous. This would be the song we would learn together.
"...Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding
Good Christian fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading..."
Everyday we practiced during recess and after reading. Mr. Gaydosh brought in his guitar and he played so gently that we had to sing very low to hear it. Singing low like that made our voices as soft as the song felt. Each night, long after Bing finished his repertoire and my sister had nodded off, I would sing myself to sleep by practicing a song that made my chest tight with deep feelings I didn't even fully understand at nine years old.
The night of the Christmas pageant we all wore our party clothes and polished shoes. We stood in a half-circle around Mr. Gaydosh and his guitar and sang our song. It made us start to hold hands and I could see that some of the parents were crying. It had been a very sad month for everyone and this song was like hearing a dove coo in the manger. It was "low, sad, and sweet..." and it bound the power of our pain into a single, strong iron cable of solidarity as a school family.
"...So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh
Come peasant king to own Him
The King of kings, salvation brings
Let loving hearts enthrone Him..."
When the song was over it was very, very quiet in the cafeteria for a long time. Then people started clapping and we walked off stage and joined our parents in the audience again.
Then next act was the finale. A play about the nativity. I remember that I couldn't stop singing "What Child is This?" in my head as I watched my little sister walk on stage as a shepherd with her crook made of cardboard.
That was 46 years ago. I still think of our 4th grade class, Mr. Gaydosh, and President Kennedy everytime I hear "What Child is This?" Learning a song together was a good idea. Mrs. Gaydosh was right, it was something we would never forget.
I thought of it today when I was reading Mary Baker Eddy's article, "Christmas 1900," from The First Church of Christ, Scientist and Miscellany where she writes, in part:
"Again loved Christmas is here, full of divine benedictions and crowned with the dearest memories in human history — the earthly advent and nativity of our Lord and Master. At this happy season the veil of time springs aside at the touch of Love. We count our blessings and see whence they came and whither they tend.
Parents call home their loved ones, the Yule-fires burn, the festive boards are spread, the gifts glow in the dark green branches of the Christmas-tree. But alas for the broken household band! God give to them more of His dear love that heals the wounded heart."
Even as fourth graders, we were aware...and for many of us, for the first time...that Christmas could also be a sad time for families. We'd thought about Mrs. Kennedy, little Caroline, and brave John-John at Thanksgiving that year and had prayed for their hearts. We were thinking about them as Christmas approached, and, for the first time, considering what it might be like for them (or us) to be without a beloved family member on Christmas morning.
Music was helping us make some sense of the connection betwen what we were thinking, and how we felt about those thoughts...or as Eddy says in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:
"Music is the rhythm of head and heart."
Even as a nine year old girl, I glimpsed something of this truth. What had come to us as information: we were citizens of a country whose much-loved president had been assassinated by an unknown gunman right in front of our eyes...was of the head. But what we did with that information and the experiences that followed: shock, mourning, numbness, empathy for his family, questioning, uniting as a country, and in our own small way, as a class community...was of the heart.
Supporting one another...discussing our concerns, processing our feelings, and finding resolution in community...through prayer and compassion, was like the harmony of head and heart. What was known...was felt. And the union of those elements created a song in us that we would never forget the words, or music, to.
Each Christmas when I hear "What Child is This," I remember a president, a teacher, a class that cried...and sang...together. I remember the girl I was then -- a girl who cared about it all -- and I am moved into a space of love and appreciation for that girl, and her friends who weren't afraid to feel things deeply and set those feelings to music. I like remembering her. She grew up to be me.
"...This, this is Christ the King
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing
Haste, haste to bring him laud
The babe, the son of Mary"
We'll sing it in church this week. And again, I will remember.
Kate Robertson, CS