Kind teacher shares secret in overcoming stage fright at Christmas program

Jerry Apps
Special to the Wisconsin State Farmer
There was little better than the Sears Christmas catalog. Here in the pages between the front and back cover was everything a boy would want for Christmas.

I knew Christmas was on the way when I returned to the one-room country school I attended after the brief Thanksgiving Day vacation. The year was 1939, and I was five years old and in first grade. 

On that Monday after Thanksgiving Miss Piechowski, who taught all eight grades, got us busy making snowmen and snowflakes from construction paper to decorate the school room. Miss Piecholwski was tall and thin with hair as black as night.

At three-thirty that day, as we were winding up our lessons and preparing to walk home, she said, “As you older students know, it’s time to begin preparing for the Christmas Program, which will be here before we know it.”  She went on to explain that she had been busy over the Thanksgiving break looking for songs and plays, and little presentation pieces that could be a part of this year’s Christmas program.

I remember attending the previous years program with my folks and my younger brothers. I remember seeing the kids standing on the stage in front of the school and singing Christmas songs, and giving little talks about Christmas. I remember the little plays the school kids were in. I remember Santa Claus and the Christmas tree that stood to the left of the stage in the school room. How could I forget Santa Claus? This was the only time I had seen him in person.

Miss Piechowski continued, “As you know every one of you will be in the program, from little Jerry Apps and Norman Hudziak in first grade, to you seventh and eighth graders who are old pros at this.”

These were words I didn’t want to hear. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was stand on the stage and make a fool out of myself. I was a shy little guy—so shy that sometimes when a car drove into our farmyard, I would run out in the woods back of the house and hide.

I don’t know where I got the gumption to do this—you never talked back to your teacher—but quietly I said, “Miss Piechowski, I don’t want to be in the Christmas program.”

She looked me straight in the eye and said, “But you must, Jerry. And I’ll help you do it.”  I guess my mother had told her about my shyness and she had probably already figured it out from working with me since the start of school in the fall.

When I got home from school that afternoon, I told Ma about the upcoming Christmas program and how Miss Piechowski said I should be in it.

“That’s good,” Ma, said smiling.

“But I don’t want to be in that old Christmas program. It’d scare me to death to stand up there on the stage with all those people watching me. Tell Miss Piechowski that I can’t do it.”

Ma smiled. “You’ll do just fine,” Ma said. 

Changing the subject Ma said, “Guess what, the Sears Christmas catalog came today."

She handed it to me. There was little better than the Sears Christmas catalog. Here was everything a boy would want for Christmas. My mind immediately shifted from that dreadful upcoming Christmas program to gifts Santa might bring me for Christmas. Ma said I could pick out one thing. This was a near impossibility as there was page after page of stuff I would really like.

I sat down by the wood burning kitchen stove and began paging through this wonderful book. I looked at an archery set, a bow with four arrows and a bull’s eye target. I looked at Tinker Toys and several books—Black Beauty, Bambi, and Treasure Island.

Finally, after Ma reminded me that I hadn’t filled the wood box for the kitchen stove, which was one of my chores, I told Ma that I had made up my mind.  I wanted Santa Claus to bring me a farm set that included a toy barn, silo, and windmill, with cows, pigs, horses and sheep.

After endlessly pouring over the pages of the catalog, I told my mom I wanted Santa Claus to bring me a farm set that included a toy barn, silo and windmill, with cows, pigs, horses and sheep.

The next day, back at school, Miss Piechowski gave me a sheet of paper with the words I should memorize for the Christmas program. Now I knew I must do it. Even Ma said I must. Every spare moment I took out the sheet and repeated the words in my mind.  Then I folded up the paper to see if I had remembered the words.

I noticed that Miss Piechowski was watching me. She came over to my desk. “You’re worried about the Christmas Program,” she said.

“I am,” I confessed. “I’m really worried that I won’t be able to say my piece.”

“Let me share with you a little secret. If you do what I suggest, you’ll have no problem at all standing up on the stage and doing your part in the program.”

She whispered the secret to me. “Thank you,” I said, feeling a bit less anxious.

And then it was the night of the Christmas Program. Pa had taken me to the Mercantile in Wild Rose where he bought me a new pair of bib overalls.

“Ma and I want you to look nice at the Christmas program,” he said. I wore new overalls and a shirt that I only wore to church.

Arriving at the school, I noticed that several cars were already parked alongside the snow-covered road. The school didn’t have electricity, so the rather dim light inside was provided by three gas lamps that hung with wires from the ceiling. The wood burning stove in the back of the school had the building toasty warm. I joined my fellow classmates in the front of the building, near the stage that the school board members had put up a week previous.

Soon it was time for the program to begin. The big brown curtain in front of the stage parted and there I stood, all by myself.  I looked out over the packed school room and said the words I had memorized, “I want to welcome all of you to our annual Christmas Program.” 

I said the words in a loud, clear voice, as Miss Piechowski had instructed. And I looked at the damper on the stove pipe in the back of the room when I said them—the secret that Miss Piechkowski had shared with me. “Don’t look at the people, look at the damper,” she had said.

Jerry Apps thoughts often return to the farmhouse near Wild Rose and his first appearance in the school's Christmas pageant.

I rushed off the stage as everyone clapped. I had done it. My first Christmas program. I appeared on the stage seven more years after that, each year a bit easier. But I never forgot to look at the damper on the woodstove in the back of the room.

On Christmas morning, after the milking was done and Pa was in the house for breakfast, I opened my present from Santa. I had gotten the little farm set that I had wanted. My little brothers and I had a chance to play with our toys before relatives began arriving for Christmas dinner. It was a wonderful Christmas for this little five-year-old.