Better pageantry through science

Holiday programming hits a nonreligious apex at my kids' school.

By Elizabeth Hanes Perry
December 22, 2000 1:18AM (UTC)
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My children attend a very earnest, very inclusive, very liberal school. Over the years, as doting parents, we have of course attended every Christmas/holiday/winter celebration. When we attended our first program, it was an unapologetic Christmas party; the children sang "Away in a Manger," complete with ASL interpretation. After a couple of years, the staff realized that this wasn't terribly welcoming to the non-Christian families, and dutifully added a singalong of "I Had a Little Dreidel," only slightly marred by the fact that nobody knew the words.

Last year, children were encouraged to "share their family traditions," which gave us the genuinely moving sight of one of the Muslim children explaining the historical roots of Ramadan. It also gave our family the somewhat less cherished sight of our daughter wailing, "We don't have any family traditions!" Hard is the way of the nonethnic.


This year's Holiday Program, however, hit a peak of inclusiveness and nonpartisanship that I cannot hope to see equaled in my lifetime.

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders stood on risers, forming a semicircle. There was an expectant silence. Then the teacher shouted, "Hydrogen!" A child replied, "Hydrogen!" Soon all the children were shouting, "Hydrogen! Hydrogen! Hydrogen!" It resembled nothing so much as some sort of CRC pep rally.

After far too long, a little boy shouted, "Helium!" Ah, a new participant in the Pageant of Chemistry. And then ("Hydrogen! Hydrogen! Hydrogen! Hydrogen!") a radiantly happy velvet-clad blond shouted, "Lithium!" and I suddenly realized what was going on.


The class was reenacting the big bang.

My husband and I sat, stunned, as the class worked its way through the entire periodic table of the elements. Most of the children shouted, "Hydrogen!" -- after all, as our daughter explained later, it's the most abundant element -- but periodically a more sophisticated element was added, no doubt to increase the dramatic tension.

But I have strayed into bigotry. On careful thought, I realize that saying "sophisticated" here indicates my bias against elements containing fewer electrons, which is, of course, a perfectly valid lifestyle for an element and not one that is appropriate for me to criticize.


By the time we reached sodium, I was concentrating on keeping a straight face. I have seen many things in the Christmas -- excuse me, holiday -- pageant over the years, including all 2,046 verses of "Dona Nobis Pacem" and a student-written play, carefully crafted to give each child a part, which lasted somewhat longer than an uncut revival of "Mourning Becomes Electra."

Before this year, I had always maintained a stately calm, applauding as appropriate and casting the occasional meaningful glance at my spouse. This program, however, came close to destroying my mommy cool. By the time my daughter shouted, "Chlorine!" my shoulders were shaking and I was biting my cheeks to keep from hysterics. My husband says that watching my struggle was his favorite part of the show. He has promised that in years to come, when merriment is called for, he will lean over and whisper tenderly in my ear, "Hydrogen!"


Even the periodic table must eventually come to an end. I won't swear that they made it all the way to meitnerium, as by then I was moments away from disgracing my daughter in front of her teachers and her friends' parents, all of whom seemed to find this a perfectly natural way to spend an evening. (What do they do at home, solve differential equations together? "Ah, darling, the blue of your eyes reminds me of Cerenkov radiation. Oh, and we're out of seitan and organic tahini.") But the celebration was not yet complete.

The children who were not shouting "Hydrogen! Hydrogen!" -- I believe one little boy got carried away, shouted, "Ozone!" and had to be suppressed -- moved on to their favorite elements.

I refer, of course, to carbon, oxygen and the elements most likely to be found in organic chemicals and compounds; elements, in short, with which they, themselves, were most likely to be have an intimate relationship. I know this because of the hand gestures. "Carbon!" (point at self), "Nitrogen!" (point at self), "Oxygen!" (heave deep sigh). (The children, not me. I was concentrating on my cleansing breaths and maintaining a composed yet pleasant expression.)


Then the children sang. Continuing the inclusive, nonreligious, yet hopeful and uplifting theme of the evening, they sang "I Sing the Body Electric," that well-known solstice/Ramadan/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Christmas favorite. I gather from the lyrics that they are all going to be planets some day, and I am proud to see that at least some of America's youth are setting lofty goals for themselves.

Elizabeth Hanes Perry

Elizabeth Hanes Perry is a technical writer with Rogue Wave Software.

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