Every December it’s the same.
“This will be the year,” I think boldly.
Of course, it never is. Christmas will come and go, and once again I will have not reached my annual goal.
Memorize Luke Chapter 2.
When I was in the 4th grade, my teacher, Mrs. Jean E. Mitchell, assigned our class a Christmas Challenge. We were to commit to memory the entire T’was The Night Before Christmas poem (properly entitled A Visit From St. Nicholas) by Clement C. Moore.
I remember like it was yesterday (rather than actually 33 years ago). Mrs. Jean E. passed out mimeographed copies of the poem, which she had handwritten perfectly with no mistakes whatsoever. The thick packet broke the poem into six sections. We had less than a month to learn all six parts. As I stared at the papers, my throat got heavy and I felt a little dizzy. And way down deep in my heart was this growing fear of failure.
What if I can’t do it?
Up until 4th grade, all assignments had been easy for me. I kept an easy A-average in all subjects, and my name was always on the honor roll for excellent grades.
Fourth grade, however, had not been nearly as easy-peasy as all the other grades. Mrs. Jean E. was a workhorse sort of teacher, who held very high expectations for all of her students. Making a 100 on an assignment meant that not only were all the answers correct, but that the handwriting was worthy of a 100 as well. I loved her, and disliked her, for that.
As soon as Mrs. Jean E. issued her Christmas Challenge, I knew that in order to get full credit for memorizing that long poem a student would have to say it perfectly, pronouncing each word clearly and not skipping a single line or stumbling over any parts. As I flipped through the pages on my desk, I knew it was a monumental feat.
I also knew I could do it.
Earlier during the 4th grade year, Mrs. Jean E. had assigned other poems for us to memorize. There were some lovely short poems on autumn, and a couple of hymn stanzas on the beauty of the earth. I don’t remember much about reciting those poems in class. But I do recall how later on Mrs. Jean E. approached me on the playground, calling me away from the others girls and the jump ropes. She asked if I might like to recite the poems as part of a program for a local Women’s club. I’m sure she partly asked me because my mother, who was her friend and fellow teacher, would also be there. And yet, in my 9 year old heart, I felt such honor at being asked to perform on behalf of my beloved teacher.
Dressed in my best Sunday outfit, a dark red velveteen dress with a lacy collar, I held my mother’s hand as we walked into the fancy meeting room at the local bank, feeling so grown up to be out after dark with her alone, going to a meeting with other women. Later, I proudly recited my poems to the roomful of ladies. My cheeks blushed with pleasure at the polite applause I received.
Now, seated at my desk, holding a much more challenging piece in my hand, I wondered if anyone would ever want to hear me recite this poem … or if I would ever have the opportunity to recite it for a group of eager listeners.
Night after night, I worked on that poem. There was so much more than simply committing it to memory. The poem contained some hard, unfamiliar words, like kerchief, obstacle and coursers. Mrs. Jean E. would not be satisfied if her students didn’t also know the meaning of each one. My vocabulary grew as I stretched my brain to put to memory the words.
At first, I practiced reciting the poem in my bedroom, but later I decided that standing in front of the fireplace provided more inspiration for me. Most nights, after dinner, father would listen to me as he smoked his pipe. He would calmly flip the pages as I recited line by line.
“Hmmm. Not quite,” he would say. “You skipped a section. Go back and say the part about the moon and how it looked on the snow.”
I yearned for the times he would nod his head. “Yes. That was good. I believe you have that part down pat. Now it’s time to learn the next section.”
December usually crawls by at a snail’s pace for most children. I guess that was a good thing, because as the time slowly passed I began to wonder if I would ever memorize the entire poem before school let out for the holidays. Day after day after day I worked and practiced. Would I ever get all the words learned by heart? Yet the fear of failure pushed me to work harder.
Then came the blessed night I got it all right! Every word in every line … I had memorized the entire poem! I could say it from beginning to end. All that was left was to say it in front of my classmates.
The next afternoon Mrs. Jean E. gave me the opportunity to recite the poem. As I walked to the front of the classroom, Mrs. Jean E. perched herself upon a stool near the back. “Now, class,” she began, “I am going to need each of you to help me watch to make sure that Paige gets the entire poem correct. Please pull out your papers so that you may follow along with her.” There was a brief rustling as all eighteen of my classmates pulled out their own worn copies of the mimeographed poem.
And then, in the quiet of the room, Mrs. Jean E. gave me the signal to begin … a big smile and the briefest of winks. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, put a smile on my face. And then off I went, reciting …
T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse….
It’s sort of a Christmas Eve tradition around here. Sometime before bed, not long after the Christmas story has been read, someone will smile and ask.
“Say it from memory, Momma!”
Of course, I must. But first, I pull out our old worn copy of the picture book and give it to some child seated nearby, who will be responsible to follow along, checking my every word. After all, in order for it to count, I must get every word in every line absolutely correct.
Much to the delight of my children, I always do. Afterwards, I take pleasure in the raucous applause of the audience, who sometimes asks me to do it again.
Some year, I hope to be able to recite the Christmas story from memory.
Considering all that’s on my plate these days, I figure that once again this will not be the year it happens … but I’m going to try anyway. I’ll turn in my Bible to the familiar story and read the words again and again. Not only will I whisper the words repetitively, but I will mediate and reflect until I have full understanding of what each word, phrase and line means.
Perhaps Jon will help me. He doesn’t smoke a pipe, but surely he will sit and listen and follow along, gently correcting me if I miss a word or a verse here and there. Maybe by Christmas Day, I’ll get another 2 or 3 verses memorized.
And maybe, in some future year I will have it all learned. Perhaps someday I will delight in hearing one of my grandchildren say, as they pull down the worn Bible,
Say it from memory, Grandma!
I’ll close my eyes, and whisper a prayer. And then, with a wink of my eye, off I’ll go reciting the words from my heart just as much from my memory.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.