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?