Ann George is faced with an onerous task
At the beginning of my teaching career in Jerusalem I was immediately presented with a challenge at my very first elementary school teachers’ meeting, obviously orchestrated by some of the current staff. My most recent post had been in a big London secondary school, but one of my main responsibilities in my new job was to oversee the primary section of this small all-age international school. The challenge was this: to direct the elementary department’s nativity play. It seemed that the primary staff had decided as one body that they were far too busy and the previous director had done this so often that it would be left to me to perform this task, as it was already on the school calendar.
They had chosen the wrong task. I had previously spent 6 years in a small all-age school at the top of a mountain in the Himalayas, and had directed an all-singing, all-dancing nativity play each year, managing without any of the material benefits of a first world society (tea towels didn’t exist) and without any support from parents (it was a boarding school). I won’t say that the task wasn’t an arduous one, because doing theatre with young children has its own challenges, but my heart certainly didn’t quail within me when the meeting threw down the gauntlet, so to speak. I informed the primary staff that I would enjoy working with all the primary children, that it would be a traditional nativity play with traditional music, and then promptly put the whole project on the back burner while I started to grapple with the immediate tasks of a new school year.
One task was to work with a young Mormon couple and their son, Joseph, who had recently come to Jerusalem as his father had been posted to the American Consulate. Unlike most of our Mormon students whose families only stayed for a year or less as part of a study programme at the Mormon centre up on the Mount of Olives, Joseph would be with us for several years. He was severely autistic, and I was only ready to admit him to the nursery class as he would bring with him his own support worker, a young woman who was working with Joseph as part of her PhD research. Our nursery was tiny, with a maximum of 12 pupils, but they came from widely different backgrounds, spoke many different languages and had had totally different childhood experiences from each other; Joseph was going to find life tough in these circumstances. At the final meeting before admission Joseph’s father said, with heart-breaking diffidence and honesty, ‘We love our son, Miss George, but we do not understand him’.
After Sukkot and the Jewish High Holidays the term moved on quickly. Suddenly it was November and we had to get the nativity show on the road. Orders went out to parents for various costumes and objects, classes were rehearsed in their carols and scenes and several run-throughs took place, all of varying quality and with their own challenges. The nursery pupils, however, did not appear. I had decided that they would be cherubs who would sing around the crib at the very end, and the nursery teacher and I had worked together with the children on their song and getting them on-stage, so that they didn’t need to wait around at full rehearsals. They would go barefoot, wear white t-shirts, bind gold ribbon round their heads and have gold-painted cardboard wings pinned to their backs.
The all-important afternoon arrived, and the hall was packed with expectant and excited parents with older brothers and sisters also present. I now quote from the school’s yearbook: ‘In a dazzling production orchestrated by Miss George, many of the elementary school children’s dramatic assets and abilities – plus a great deal of musical talent – were revealed’. In other words, it was a great success, and, I have to say it, the best bit was when the nursery children filed in, settled around the crib, and sang:
Mary’s little baby sleep, sweetly sleep,
Sleep in comfort, slumber deep.
We will rock you, rock you, rock you……
And who was right in front by the crib? Joseph, of course, looking totally angelic, actually singing, ‘rock you’ and looking at Baby Jesus. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!
Joseph’s parents came up to me at the end, obviously very emotional and shaken. His father said, ‘When we came to Jerusalem we never imagined that we would see Joseph being with all these children, doing what they are doing, joining in and being part of something – it’s a miracle!’
And it was.
The primary department allowed me to direct the nativity play for 2 years, and then decided that they wanted to do it themselves again. I relinquished my post with some reluctance; I rather enjoy directing nativity plays.