There was nothing special about that November afternoon in 1968 — cold, windy and snowy. Then Mrs. Templeton returned from the school office with an announcement. She proceeded to say she had chosen a Christmas pageant and she would list off who would get what part.
Whoa. The long-awaited, much anticipated Christmas season must be underway. For an eight-year-old Grade 3’er in rural Manitoba, the best part of the year was here. Excitement reigned among her pupils.
The Basswood Consolidated School was in its final year in 1968-69. We children may not have known, but surely the teachers did, and likely the parents. We heard their whispers.
The writing was on the blackboard, so to speak. In recent years, Grades 5 through 8 had already moved to Minnedosa, a centre of 2,200 people just 15 kilometres to the southeast. My two older sisters spoke like it was Winnipeg. Minnedosa seemed like a metropolis.
Here in Basswood though, the remaining children huddled: Grades 1 and 2 together, and then Grades 3 and 4 guided by Mrs. Templeton. We had a principal, Mrs. Lochhead, but none of my friends knew what she did. Maybe she planned extra homework, we guessed. And it meant trouble to have to go to her office.
The upstairs of the brick two-story school, where classrooms had once been, were now activity and assembly rooms, and a lunchroom. The sounds of children still pealed through the hallways and echoed in the stairwells. However, the end was near.
Perhaps that was our teachers’ thoughts when they decided to have a Christmas concert in Basswood’s lime green community hall. The huge arch-roof building had hosted many of them, and other gathering such as fowl suppers, wedding dances, and anniversary celebrations. My guess is that it held 300 with extra chairs borrowed from the United Church close by, or maybe 400 if the men gave up their chairs and stood, leaning against the curved walls. The grand stage, framed with thick burgundy curtains, was worthy of a Shakespeare production.
The teachers had selected a pageant of Santa Claus being on trial. I don’t recall the plot’s nuances, but Santa was accused of not being the “real thing,” and therefore, he had to face justice. Crazy yes, but more importantly, the drama soaked up many actors — the jury, the courtroom players, the gallery, and a children’s choir at the end.
Everybody can sing Christmas carols, and those little kids were so cute when they sang enthusiastically. Their repetitive “Fa la la la la, la la la la” chorus of Deck the Halls almost peeled varnish off the dance floor.
Mrs. Templeton now alphabetically rattled through familiar names. Mine came midway: “Mark Kihn, the Complaining Witness.”
Yikes. I knew nothing about a “witness,” let alone if it was a “speaking” part. I did know how to complain. It was a role, though. In fact, I was a thespian. Excitement and stress combined.
In the practices that followed, I learned my few lines, which I recited in the courtroom scene, and then I receded into the gallery. However, I had a problem.
My lines began with “Early one evening…” and I kept saying “Early one morning….” Of course, Santa comes in the evening, but I kept associating “early” with morning.
In the play, I testified that I had seen him on Christmas Eve.
So we pressed on until the concert date arrived. That evening while backstage, we peeked beside the curtains. The hall was full. I spotted my parents, my older sisters, and my two pre-school brothers.
My older brother, David, in Grade 4 was in the pageant too, but I don’t recall his part.
I do not believe the organizers charged admission, but there was a contribution basket near the exit door, my dad mentioned — maybe for the hall rental cost.
The pageant began. I wore black pants and a pressed shirt with a necktie. I had to look the part and Mom took care of that. My character soon came up. “Early one morning…” I mean “Early one evening….” I flubbed it — or did I?
The judge interrupted. “Did you mean morning or evening?” he asked me.
“Evening,” I blurted. The crowd chuckled approvingly, as if that’s the way my part had been written. I finished my lines and melted back into the courtroom crowd, beside a friend, Andy Cardy.
“Good job,” he murmured. What a friend. I began to feel good. And even better, my part was done. Somehow I had survived. Whew.
My sisters said the concert went well, no real hang-ups. They liked my part. The singing children were the stars, as they always are.
The teachers were happy because now they could relax. And the parents were proud of their children. Or “relieved” may be a more accurate word.
As for us children, we were doubly happy. The pageant was done, thank goodness, the pressure was off. Plus, tomorrow was Friday, the last day of school before a two-week Christmas break. As a kid, that feeling approaches utopia.
I can’t say for sure, but that evening Mrs. Templeton may have reached for a Christmas nip of rum-laced eggnog. The 57-year old matron had earned it.
In June 1969, the school closed forever, ending 50-plus years of hosting the joyous shouts and quiet tears — and all emotions in between — of the Basswood children. Its final glory may have been that 1968 Christmas pageant.
The Rolling River School Division razed the building in the early 1970s, and sold the land. The green hall suffered a fire in spring of 1998, but the community rebuilt it within a year, but without the garish green colour.
Sadly, Mrs. Templeton died in August 1978, just months after our family sold our farm, moved away, and I headed to university. She and her husband Jim (and a grandchild) perished in an automobile accident close to their farm. They lived several miles south of Basswood. Andy said a truck drove through a stop sign.
I shall never forget Mrs. Templeton’s patience and prodding of her pupil-actors. She was adept at encouraging and chastising. She may have even quoted from the 1966 debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie, the director, said, “it’s the spirit of the actors that count.”
I owe my prowess in long division to Mrs. Templeton. She once spent two lunch breaks one-on-one drilling it into my Grade 3 brush-cut head. The arithmetic finally clicked.
My acting career went nowhere. However, I have often had the role of speaking to crowds, even singing the national anthem. I have never felt as nervous as I did as the complaining witness, and that gives me confidence before I even start.
Plus when I finish, I have never experienced the relief and excitement quite like I did that mid-December evening in 1968.
Maybe I peaked then.