December 20, 2013
My class put on a holiday play. It wasn’t really a Christmas play. It was written by Mrs. Knight, my second grade teacher. Mrs. Knight was the best teacher I ever had. While she did a good job of drilling the basics into us-reading, writing, and fundamentals of pre-calculus-she also challenged us in ways I wouldn’t appreciate until years later. She led us in a lengthy discussion of what a "bad word" was, and whether a word by itself could be "bad" or if it was the way it was used that was bad. I don’t know how many second grade teachers tackle semiotics. And she encouraged us to pay attention to the news, especially science news. She brought in newspaper clippings so we could keep track of Voyager I and II. We made all nine planets (Pluto was still a planet in those days) and the sun out of paper maché and put together a solar system that stretched from one end of the classroom to the other. There was a solar eclipse, and she showed us how to make a viewer out of a shoebox, which would have been really cool if it hadn’t been cloudy that day. The main thing I remember, though, is she was always encouraging us to use our imaginations, to be creative, and, like all good teachers, she led by example. When Christmas got close she brought in a completely original play she’d written for us to perform. Well, not entirely original. Like all good teachers she also took an interest in what interested us, and in 1977 that meant Star Wars.
The story she’d written was that Darth Vader uses his light saber to cut off Santa’s beard, which is the source of all of Santa’s magical toy-delivering powers. It looks like Christmas will be cancelled until Luke Skywalker swoops in and saves the day by delivering all the toys, with the help of C-3PO and R2-D2, in his X-Wing fighter. I don’t know which is more impressive: that Mrs. Knight was so familiar with Star Wars that she could accurately write about light sabers and X-Wing fighters or that she could knock out a complete play with parts for the whole class. I played C-3PO, mainly because I had the costume left over from Halloween, which was how most of the parts were assigned, although the role of R2-D2 went to the smallest girl in the class whose costume consisted of a foil-covered box with a Tupperware bowl on top. I had one line: "R2 and I will shoot the toys down the chimneys with our laser guns." Maybe I give Mrs. Knight a little too much credit for her knowledge of Star Wars, since neither C-3PO nor R2-D2 ever held a gun, but, hey, at least I had a speaking part, and guns being adapted to shoot toys made the universe a better, more peaceful place. From what I remember there was no rehearsal. We just learned our lines, or, in my case, line, trotted out onto the stage at the front of the cafeteria, and performed. Maybe that’s why I missed my cue. Mrs. Knight whispered my line at me from where she was standing, next to the piano in front of the stage. So there was a long pause before "R2 and I will shoot the toys down the chimneys with our laser guns", but after that the play moved to its happy conclusion. I don’t recall whether the question of Luke potentially having to deliver toys every year was addressed, but a year is a long time, and presumably Santa’s beard would grow back in time for next Christmas.
I won’t say this was a better time. It was the seventies, after all, and, in many ways, it was a worse time, at least in the United States. There was high unemployment, distrust of the government, inflation, gas shortages, housing riots, racial tension, conceptual art, and an assassination attempt on President Ford by someone named "Squeaky". It was a time that saw a terrible end to a costly and pointless war, of bellbottoms, butterfly collars, and my friends and I hanging inside the playground jungle gym yelling "Attica! Attica!" It was also a time of grimly realistic cinema, with films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, and Network. It’s been suggested that Star Wars was successful because it was escapist fantasy, but Star Wars may have been a truer expression of the feelings of the time than its grittier counterparts. The heroes, after all, are a group of ragged rebels with second-hand equipment going up against an Empire that has all the power and all the wealth. It may have taken place in a galaxy far, far away, but Star Wars encouraged us to imagine a better future, and to imagine that it was within our power to make the future better.
I also won’t say that things have necessarily gotten better. Some of the problems we had then have merely changed, not gone away, and we have other problems to deal with. And many of my memories of the Seventies, particularly the news, in spite of Mrs. Knight’s encouragement, are fuzzy. Maybe there were people who tried to create unnecessary and petty wars over saying "Happy holidays" versus "Merry Christmas", and maybe at the time there were still people who weren’t so interested in decking the halls as they were decking fellow shoppers in an effort to get the best deals or the latest hot toy. Maybe it just wasn’t as widely publicized. What keeps coming back to me about Mrs. Knight’s play is that its theme–that evil aims for what’s superficial while good always has the power to make things better–is a metaphor for all the holidays at this time of year. The holidays are themselves a kind of once-a-year performance, a time when we’re encouraged to imagine a world where we’re all nice and show goodwill toward each other, a feeling that’s supposed to transcend all differences. And Mrs. Knight encouraged us to imagine because imagining a better world is the first step toward making a better world.