“We might as well be moving to Russia!” I wailed at my mother as I threw my Han Solo action figure into the packing box with the rest of my toys. The reality was we were moving from the North Side of Chicago to the South Side, but to a 7-year-old whose entire existence had been made up of a few city blocks, there was nothing more terrifying than leaving the comforting northern den of my beloved Cubs, for the thorny lair of the hated White Sox.
My mother had just remarried after my father’s death the year before. Added on to the indignity of leaving the only neighborhood I had ever known — where all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents resided as well — was the fact that I would be changing schools mid-year, having to transfer second grade classes at the beginning of December.
“Isn’t this exciting,” my mother said hopefully later that day, as we both dug through the balls of packing paper looking for errant Matchbox cars that had fallen out of their garage during the move, “a new house, a new school, a new family.”
I stared at her blankly. I wasn’t going to make this easy for her.
My first few days at Southeast Elementary School did nothing to help my situation. My classmates were ahead of me in math and grammar, and I had to use my recess time to do extra exercises to catch up. Add to that, they had already started working on their annual Christmas Musical Showcase. You remember those, where the music teacher gave students from each grade level one or two standard carols to perform at an assembly for parents the last day of school before Christmas break.
My new class would be performing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I really wanted to be in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” number since that was my favorite song — primarily because I liked the idea of Christmas lasting 12 days, especially if it meant receiving gifts on each of those days.
Of course, I didn’t get put in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Instead I was a part of the Rudolf ensemble. The song was choreographed (and I use that term liberally) so that each of the students would enter the stage with our backs to the audience, and as we began singing the prologue: “You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen…” we would turn around as our reindeer name was called. Our costuming was rather primitive: reindeer antlers fashioned out of pipe cleaners and a brown sash that displayed our reindeer name in felt lettering. Since I was not a part of the original grouping and all the traditional reindeer names had been assigned, my sash read “Twinkles.” That’s right, “Twinkles.” There was no “Twinkles” in the song, and to add insult to injury I had to turn around at the same time as the kid playing Blitzen.
As rehearsals continued I found myself identifying more and more with the protagonist of the song. I could relate to Rudolf’s feelings of awkwardness and being excluded. I had difficulty making friends because my social time at school was limited due to having to play catch-up during recess and sometimes lunch. As it would turn out, rehearsing during music class was one of the few times I was able to get to know my new classmates.
Feeling alienated, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the reason the show flopped, and so I sang the song constantly. (In retrospect my fear seems rather absurd, but a second grader’s world and its accompanying hopes and fears seem very real to them, no matter how silly they may appear through an adult lens.) I would sing it in the car on the way to school, I would sing it after saying my prayers before I went to bed, and I would sing it as I brushed my teeth in the morning, which made for a heck of a mess on the bathroom mirror.
The day of the show I went out with my “Twinkles” sash proudly displayed and turned exactly when Blitzen’s name was called. I made no mistakes and the audience loved it, of course. After the show I was greeted by my mom and my new family: my new dad and his parents, my new grandparents. They were full of praise for my performance and my grandma Carm said that she could clearly hear me over anyone else.
We went out for dinner that evening, and my new grandpa Al asked me to sing the song, right there at the table in the middle of the restaurant. I was a bit shy, but my grandpa showed me (and would continue to show me through the ensuing years) that he was anything but shy, and began to warble the tune in his smooth baritone. His singing gave me the courage to sing and I joined him, no longer afraid and feeling as though I belonged.