Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy to be retired, but there are a few times throughout the school year when I am reminded of just how much I enjoyed teaching middle school.The run-up to Christmas break is one of those times.
In the weeks before they are released from school, students radiate an excitement that is contagious. I enjoyed introducing holiday related writing and reading activities in my class. My very favorite thing was working with my classes on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
I do believe I read some form of the story each of the 30 years I taught. My first few years we read a condensed version of the story in Dickens’ own words. The 1840’s vocabulary was a challenge, I daresay, but it was worth it, and the fact that most of the kids knew the story helped put the words in context. It was a good opportunity to talk about how language changes.
One or two book adoptions later, I was handed a set of textbooks with a dramatization of the story. Although the playwright updated the language a bit, he tried to stay true to Dickens’ words and phrases and kept just enough of the vocabulary to give the play a solid Victorian flavor. The students enjoyed taking parts and, of course, they all wanted to play Tiny Tim and say, “God, bless us, everyone.”
I read the story or play three to six times a year for 30 years, went to see the yearly Indiana Repertory Theatre performances, watched innumerable versions on TV, and I never got tired of it. “A Christmas Carol” has it all: memorable characters, a universal story of redemption, action, mystery, suspense, pathos — and ghosts. What’s not to like?
For a few years, I tried every December to memorize the defense of Christmas speech that Scrooge’s nephew Fred gives at the beginning of the story after Scrooge wonders what good Christmas ever did for the nephew. I would eventually get it in my head and recite it to anyone who would listen, but I inevitably forgot it soon after Christmas and would have to start over the next December.
I like Scrooge’s nephew. He understands his uncle better than Scrooge understands himself. He also knows how important it is to stick by one’s family. Each Christmas he comes to ask his uncle to join him for Christmas dinner, and each year his
uncle refuses the invitation. I like Fred because he never loses hope that Scrooge will change. He understands that each time he meets with his uncle, he must start all over again.
I find that each December as I read “A Christmas Carol” I make an attempt to be more Fred-like and be filled with the Christmas spirit of hope and giving, or as Fred might put it, to “open my shut-up heart freely” and to think of people as “fellow passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
It usually works to some degree, I think, but my problem is that once the holiday is over, that Fred spirit is often replaced by one with which his grumpy uncle might identify. And as the days and months progress through the calendar, I am constantly making a choice: to be Fred or to be Scrooge. It’s not something that one can decide once and then move on to something else. It is a choice that must be made over and over again each day, each moment.
I’ve already located my copy of “A Christmas Carol” and plan to read it through as if it were a brand new story. Who knows? I may even try to memorize Fred’s speech.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.