Choir Boy

Eric O. Scott —  December 14, 2012 — 15 Comments
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Shepard Elementary School, St. Louis, MO.

Mr. Dellard, standing behind the piano in Shepard Elementary School’s music room, points to me. This is my signal; I step forward, separating myself from the rest of the eight year old boys that make up our public school choir’s tenor section. I have the solo in this song, the only song in our repertoire that even has a solo. For two verses, the twenty-five other children fade into the background, dim lights eclipsed by my star. They are merely the Supremes; I am Diana Ross.

“What you gonna call your pretty little baby?” the choir sings. “What you gonna call your pretty little baby, born, born in Bethlehem?”

“Some say one thing,” I reply, beaming. My voice echoes the bounce of the Mr. Dellard playing the melody. “I’ll say Immanuel!”

Thus did the Heathen child welcome Christ into the world.

December was the best time of year for a choir kid. No other after-school club at my school got the chance to travel around the city; we alone were allowed to skip class during the Christmas season and perform concerts in downtown St. Louis. There is no currency so precious to an eight-year-old as extra field trips. We lorded it over our fellows, reminding them that while they suffered in class, we were singing to the businessmen at Metropolitan Square. We told them this, and then we basked in the warm glow of their hate.

Most of our repertoire consisted of the classics: Santa songs, like “Up on the Housetop,” “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” and so forth, and Jesus songs: “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger.” But Mr. Dellard, to his credit, liked to experiment with new tunes from year to year. “What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?” was one of that year’s experiments.

At the time, nothing seemed too strange about the song, though it was obviously different than the rest of our oeuvre. Mr. Dellard called the song a “spiritual,” but that word didn’t mean anything to a gang of third-graders. It was just the song we sang between “Little Drummer Boy” and “Give Love on Christmas Day.” There was nothing more significant about it than that.

Looking back now, almost two decades later, the irony of the scene pains me. For one, being a spiritual, “What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?” is tied to the African-American experience. I went to a school whose student body was, by a substantial majority, black, and did not lack talented young vocalists. Yet the solo went to a white child. It’s also pretty obvious that the soloist represents Mary – indeed, most versions of the song address Mary by name, though obviously ours did not. Yet the solo went to a boy.  Finally, the song expresses, as much through its form of call-and-response and its rhythm as through its lyrics, the particular character of African-American Christianity. Yet the solo went to a boy who had never been Christian – not that any of my teachers knew that.

I also had a high, froggy voice. Perhaps Mr. Dellard gave me the part because it didn’t require much of a range.

I sang about Jesus with no reservations – it seemed perfectly normal to me. I had no real conception of religion at that point, and neither did the other children. We were young; we had little notion of the complex world beyond the blacktop of our schoolyard. The first time I ever discussed religion with a boy my own age, I mentioned that there were others kinds of people in the world than Christians, though at the time I didn’t know what they might be. He scoffed, and, in a tone that implied I was an idiot for not knowing better, said, “Man, everybody’s a Christian.” Then he paused, and added, “Except Catholics.”

We didn’t know any better. A questioning nature does not appear fully-formed at the onset of language; it takes training to develop. My classmate could not think of life beyond the Christian world of his birth, except for his first experience of irrational prejudice. I knew, if only to a degree, that I was different, that when my parents and I prayed, we spoke to someone besides Jesus. But I had no words to express those feelings – even the word “Pagan” was absent from my vocabulary.

For lack of any other way to conceive of myself, I went along with the others. When I was asked, I said I was a Christian. I didn’t know that I wasn’t.

But one boy did.

He was another member of the choir. He came to practice one afternoon with a sour look on his face and went to Mr. Dellard before we could start singing. He needed to talk to him about the song “Away in a Manger.” Mr. Dellard told us all to talk among ourselves and ignore him. Naturally, every one of us sat in rapt silence, listening to the whispers between the little boy and the music teacher.

I don’t remember much about the boy. He was a small black child, a year behind me, and consequently completely out of my social circle. We wore uniforms at my school – white polos and blue slacks, intended to prevent envy-inspired fights in the playground – so his clothes weren’t distinctive. But I can still remember everything he said, all those words not meant for my ears.

“Mr. Dellard, my mom doesn’t like me singing these songs,” he said.

“No?” said Mr. Dellard.

“No,” said the boy. “She doesn’t want me to learn it, or Silent Night. Or any of those songs.”

Mr. Dellard frowned. “Well, what are we going to do about that? If you can’t sing them, you can’t be in the choir.”

The ultimatum obviously pained the child. His parents didn’t mind the Santa songs – maybe he could just sing those? But Mr. Dellard said no, he couldn’t have one child standing around by himself for half a concert – Mr. Dellard couldn’t watch him and conduct the choir at the same time. Sing all the songs, or sing none of them; that was how it had to be.

The boy said he’d talk to his mother about it.

He missed the next choir practice. We all thought he had been forced to quit, but he came back the day after. We pounced as soon as he sat down. “What did you mom say? Can you sing the Christmas songs? Do you have to miss the field trip?”

“No,” he said. “I can go on the field trip. She said it was okay. Just as long as I don’t bring it home with me.”

I find myself thinking about that little boy every year at Yuletide. He was the first person outside of my family I ever knew to be something other than Christian. I still have no idea what religion he had been raised in, or the explanation his mother gave for why he couldn’t sing “Little Drummer Boy” like the rest of the kids. But that conversation with Mr. Dellard must have been a frightening, lonely experience for him. It’s hard at any age to be marked as different. It’s worse when you’re so young, when you’re so desperate to fit in.

I wish that I had been able to express any of this at the time. I probably had more in common with that child, whatever his family believed, than I did with anyone else at my school. But I faded into the crowd of other children, not even realizing how alike we were.

Memory: I can think of no other puzzle like it, one which grows more complicated the more effort we put into it. At times, I find myself humming along with a tune at Yuletide, and then recognize the song as one I sang as a child. My memories remain fond ones; I did love to sing, especially at Christmas time. But now I can’t help but think of the implications. It seems like a trivial thing to worry about, yes, but – but why were we singing about Jesus at a public school? Why was nobody bothered by the intertwining of Christian myths and public education but one little boy’s mother?

The lessons we receive in youth stay with us forever; while I am no developmental psychologist, I expect they inform the person we eventually turn out to be on a fundamental level. Those snowy days, standing inside of Union Station, singing our praises to the newborn king – they taught me, without anyone saying a word explicitly, that to be Christian was to be normal, that to be anything else was strange. That stayed with me, as much as the melodies and the lyrics.

How could a child help but take that home with him?

Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."
  • M

    “A questioning nature does not appear fully-formed at the onset of language; it takes training to develop.” – is SO WRONG. For many the desire to know “Why” is present from birth.

    • Vision_From_Afar

      Perhaps the qualifier “questioning [of authority and establishment]”.
      “Why is the sky blue?” is of a completely different stripe from “Why don’t we sing about Jesus like everyone else?”

      • Indeed, that is what I meant. Children, of course, are forever asking “why,” but learning to ask, “how do you know that?” is much more difficult.

        If you prefer, M, replace “nature” with “facility.” Even the savants need lessons.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    Insightful and well written as always Eric. Thanks.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I suspect the kid’s family was Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t like their kids exposed to other expressions of religion, and iirc were responsible for some of the litigation that curbed overt public-school religiosity fifty years ago. And they have members of all races.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I suspect the kid’s family was Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don;t like their children exposed to others’ expressions of religion, and iirc were responsible for some of the litigation that curbed public-school religiosity. And they have members of all races.
    (Second try for this comment.)

    • That always seemed like a reasonable possibility to me – that or possibly Muslim.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    That is a very well-written, cathartic article to read, Eric. I certainly know what it is like to be considered different–I remember that as early as four-years-old I gave libations to trees and spent a lot of time talking to and sitting under them.

  • This was such an interesting piece to read. I myself have two boys who we’re raising heathen in a small town with no other pagan kids. We’ve only lived here for four months but have allready had toddeal with christians coming to kindergarten to teach the kids religion. I was hoping that the precence of a muslim kid in his group would help, but no such luck. Anyway. I would love to know more about your pagan upbringing, can I email you or have you written about it somewhere?

  • Sarah Geimer

    Oh Gods, Eric, you know the image of you as Diana Ross is now burned into my brain, don’t you? 🙂

    At eight, I already knew the word “Pagan” and “witch” as a self-descriptor (helps having an older brother who’s ahead of the curve on these things) but of course I knew *never* to share that outside the family, and I certainly wouldn’t have been brave enough to stand against a teacher and tell them I wouldn’t sing their songs.

    My favorite memory about Christmas at school was in fifth grade (age 10), waiting in the hallway outside the classroom for class to begin, and I was watching one friend try to convince another about the pagan origins of the Christmas tree (and various other traditions). It was getting pretty heated when that friend turned to me (being “the smart one”, i.e. bookish nerd) and asked me what I thought. I said that she was certainly right, all those traditions were pagan in origin. Then she asked “So you don’t put up a tree in your house, either, right?” in all earnestness to prove her point. It fell flat when, in all innocence, I replied, “No, we do.”

    I see now that that was the first point in my life when I’d even hinted at being different to any outsiders. 🙂

  • Veracity

    Very well written, and puts things into words things that have been percolating in my mind for a while. The age of 8 is so impressionable, yet often with so little understanding of what you’re being impressed with.

    I remember watching my nephew get baptized after proclaiming his salvation at age 8. I went, looking at it as a celebration of a family event and honoring their happiness, no matter my private beliefs. Yet at the same time, both I and my husband (who is a Christian) were inwardly shaking out heads – how could a child of 8 truly know what they are proclaiming?

    I remember being 8 and singing in church, which we had only been attending for about a year. I loved singing, it made my parents proud of me (a rare thing) and got me approval and attention (also rare). A favorite family story to tell is how I would sing “Victory in Jesus” and one line reads “He plunged me to victory,” which I sang as “He punched me to victory.” My family thinks this story is hilarious and I am far past being embarrassed by it, but the point nobody else seems to realize is that I obviously had no idea what I was singing about.

    At the same age, I had a 3rd grade teacher who along with the 3 Rs taught deportment and how to pray properly. My parents saw nothing unusual in this, and though I was an avid churchgoer at that age, my memories of that school year and that teacher are confused because I didn’t understand – even at that age – why church and school were being combined.

    The worst memory I have of that age was associated with church. Sometimes instead of services on Wednesday night there were “activities” and one night they showed a film about what the Tribulation would be like (why show this in a church if everyone there supposedly are going to be raptured already?) This being the 1970s, the USSR was the big bad guy, the embodiment of the AntiChrist. The scene I remember most distinctly involved a boy my age. His family had been captured by soldiers and a soldier demanded that the boy spit on a picture of Jesus or die by beheading. The adorable child, tears in his eyes, refused to do so, strong in his faith. And he was beheaded.

    It is sad that the strongest memory I have of being 8 years old is watching that boy’s head roll across the screen. What the hell were they doing showing that film to an 8 year old anyway? My brother was there as well, only 5, but he has no memory of it, thank goodness. My own memory is far too vivid. Years later I realized the root reason I proclaimed my own salvation at age 11 was my fear of going to hell, not my love of God or Jesus Christ. But by then I was so indoctrinated that it took me until my mid-20s to figure that out.

    And people criticized me for not raising my kids to believe in Santa Claus. Some of what we experience as kids goes right over our heads – when my son was little, he would tell people “Santa Claus isn’t real – but I saw him at the Mall!” It just went right over his head, in one ear and out the other. But some things do not just pass over their heads. Some sink in, consciously or unconsciously. Some of it we can fight, some we can only fight by making sure we are the strongest influence in our children’s lives and encouraging them to THINK. And make sure they know that the final choice always rests with them.

  • SisterCrow

    I grew up in the 1950’s. We sang Christmas carols at school. Because there was a Jewish kid in our class, we sang a couple of Hanukah songs. We also sang show tunes, nursery rhymes, May Day songs, and anything else we could. I still love Christmas carols – the melodies are beautiful. They also taught us to read music (which, sadly, I’ve forgotten). I remember 2 things about it. One, singing was fun! Two, our music teacher had a voice like a frog. Bless his heart, the man loved singing and music, but I don’t know how we learned to sing from him. To me, they were just pretty tunes. Heck, we even learned a few songs in German and Latin (by rote). To a kid, it might as well have been Klingon.

    I remember one bad experience with Christianity in grade school. My 5th grade teacher told us that if we didn’t stay inside praying on Good Friday from 1-5 pm, when Jesus was dying on the cross, we were wicked children. As it happened, my Mom was washing floors, and chased us all outside to play. I felt horrible.

    I also remember poor Neil Weiner, the Jewish kid in my class, having to give a talk on whichever Jewish holiday was going on at the time. It was interesting, but I felt bad that he had to do it.

    But singing – I loved it, no matter what the subject of the song.

  • Kat

    Great read! I think that sense of being different at a young age is something many of us experience…before we even know what that differentness is. Growing up, both my parents were atheist, but we never discussed religion in our house except when they were answering my questions about someone else’s. So, I have a vivid memory of being somewhere around 10 years old, standing on the playground, looking at the sky. I wanted it to snow, so our school would be let out early, and so I had wandered around the playground gathering small bits of grass. I took this bundle of grass and tossed it into the sky as a gift to convince the sky to snow. A friend of mine (who is still a close friend) asked what I was doing. When I told her she replied, “I can’t do that, I’m Christian”. It was that moment that I realized that not only did I believe something different than her…I also believed something different than my parents. And it did snow! (Although it probably would have anyway!)