(as published in the Robertson County Times, 23 Dec 2009)
Christmas is here. It seems like only yesterday that I was enjoying a party in my first-grade classroom in Cedar Hill Elementary. We had red punch, decorated sugar cookies and cupcakes. We also exchanged names in the class to purchase a Christmas gift. I don’t remember if there was a financial limit, but I can’t imagine it was more than five dollars. The class had decorated our cedar tree with colored paper chains and other decorations we made in class from glitter and glue. There might have been some tinfoil stars as well, but I know we had lots of tinsel added at the end.
Our teacher was Mrs. Sallie Gamble Orand. She was a very gentle woman, who was always smiling and seemed to have time to talk to each one of us. Just a month ago, we were practicing a couple of songs for the Annual School Christmas Program. I remember that we sang “Away, in the Manger” and another song with an older group. The sixth-grade students, taught by Mrs. Marion Martin, played two Christmas selections on their flutes. This was very impressive to all of us in the first grade. My older brother, Denny, would have been in the seventh grade that year. I’m sure he sang with his class, but I don’t remember their performance that year, because I was so nervous. All of the younger classes sat in chairs in front of the stage, while the older classes came onto the stage for their performances.
On the night of the performance, there was a large Christmas tree on the stage and our principal, Mr. Joe Borthick, welcomed all of the parents and guests. I remember several of the older students playing Christmas songs on the piano during the evening. I know I was focused on our songs. My parents; my sister, Beverly; my brother, Wayne, and of course, my brother, Denny were there for our Christmas extravaganza. Our big brother, Joe, was home from college and came to our big show. It seemed to me that everyone I knew from Cedar Hill was in the auditorium.
The first grade stood for their first presentation. I was on the second row. On the row just in front of me were Sharon Shepard, Pam Harris, Mary Jo ‘Josie’ Head, and Julie ‘Sweetie’ Tinsley. Beside me were Billy Corbin, Mark Mason, Robert Hulsey and Bailey Knight. There were about 28 of us in the class that year as we stood for our song. Mrs. Lovan gave us our notes from the piano and Mrs. Orand stood before us smiling and urging us to sing out. I’m sure our parents thought our rendition of “Away in the Manger” was as beautiful as ever heard. We finished our second song to loud applause and took our seats. We listened intently as all of the other classes performed. Just as we thought the evening was over, Mr. Borthick, said we have a guest who has traveled a long way to be here in Cedar Hill tonight. “Ho, Ho. Ho., Merry Christmas!” was booming as the jolly old elf himself walked out onto the stage standing just behind the first graders. Now I had seen Santa many times at Ben Franklin 5 & 10 Store, at Gamble’s Hardware, and other stores over the years, but never had I seen Santa in Cedar Hill. What a Christmas! I was ready for Santa to come.
We were gathered in class for our Christmas party and after we had distributed all of our gifts and enjoying the party, Mrs. Orand called each of us up to her desk, one at a time. She wished us a very Merry Christmas, gave us a book and a big hug. She gave me The Big-Little Dinosaur. I still have that book from that special person. It was not the first book I was ever given, but Mrs. Orand would always fill a special role for me. It was through her encouragement that I began reading every book I could. She encouraged me to learn music theory and I began taking piano lessons. Perhaps I learned that it was not the gift itself that was special, but the attachment to the special person who gave it.
As we went home from school that afternoon, everyone shouting Merry Christmas as they boarded the buses home for the holidays. There was a light snow falling as we pulled out of the school drive in Cedar Hill on Bus No. 6, driven by Mr. Porter Corbin. Now Mr. Porter was one of the nicest men I ever knew, but he didn’t put up with any shenanigans on the bus. He let my brother, Denny, off the bus at our Feed Mill. When I walked up to the front of the bus to get off, Mr. Porter said, “Not today young man, you’re headed to the house.” I was disappointed because I wanted a bag of peanuts and a Grape Delish soda from the big cooler at the Feed Mill. A few other students got off the bus at the railroad track and others at Gossett’s store. When the bus turned left onto the big Highway, I knew my house was the next stop. Mr. Porter stopped in front of my house and called one of the older students to cross the highway with me. He wished me a ‘Merry Christmas’ in his big booming voice and I waved bye to all of my friends who were headed home in the snow. The snow continued to fall until we had six inches.
We have some pictures of the holidays, but it is hard to capture the true essence of those family gatherings. Those photographs cannot hold the smell of my Mom’s cornbread dressing cooking or the taste of Aunt Martha’s fruit salad or the sound of my brothers playing with their new toys. Remember to take some time this season to share your memories with your family.
[The photo of Mrs. Sallie Orand was saved in one of my many memory boxes. I believe she gave each of us a picture in the First Grade. ]