When my kids entered public school, there was one thing I dreaded above all else. It was something more unappetizing than the hot lunch program, more intimidating than standardized tests, and more inevitable than the call from the school nurse.
It was the annual holiday performance.
Don't get me wrong. I'm no scrooge. But I am haunted by ghosts of Christmas past.
When I was a kid, my school became a church for the entire month of December. I still remember choking on the words "Christ is the Lord" in music class, which I was forced to sing even though it contradicted my own beliefs. For weeks we decorated every wall with pictures of reindeer, elves and Christmas trees. The playground was abuzz with discussions of Santa and presents. It all culminated in a huge Christmas sing with one ironic nod to those of us who weren't part of the mainstream: We danced the hora around the Christmas tree. Yes, everything revolved around Christmas.
Anyone who has been in the minority anywhere probably can relate to this experience. It reminds you of what an outsider you truly are. When you're a kid, that's a particularly lousy feeling.
I'm sure my decision to move to Oak Park stems from experiences like this. I wanted to live and raise my kids in a place where the majority wasn't large enough to make everyone else feel unwelcome.
And for the most part, I found that here. But as December approached during my daughter's kindergarten year, I started to get nervous. The holiday sing was on the school calendar, and despite the more inclusive name, I feared it would be a repeat of what I recalled from my elementary school days.
How wrong I was. It was very holiday, but not exclusively Christmas. The music the children sang and played included songs from several religious and ethnic traditions, and it was more seasonal than sacred. That was a relief, but it isn't the only reason why I've come to love the holiday sing.
The beauty of the holiday sings at our public schools?#34;and all school performances, for that matter?#34;is that we get to see our children and their classmates come together to do their collective best. They stand on the stage, their hands mostly at their sides, their shoelaces mostly tied, their hair mostly out of their eyes, and they beam with pride. You can't tell who forgot to turn in their homework, who got behind in reading, who stuck gum under their chair, and for the moment it simply doesn't matter. They are, for now, the stars of the school, and their faces show that they know it.
And then we turn around and see that pride reflected in the audience. Parents, siblings and grandparents beam at the stage as though seeing these children with fresh eyes. Never mind yesterday's detention, the showdown over homework, the lost library book. We're here to support these kids and applaud their efforts, and we're as proud of them as they are of themselves.
I've been to seven holiday sings at Irving School, along with plenty of other concerts and performances, and each time I'm surprised to feel that same sense of pride?#34;not only for my own child, but for every child and for the school.
For me, I think these events have become a tangible reminder of what I and many others like about Oak Park and its public schools, and it all comes down to diversity. There are kids of several races and ethnicities and they're singing each other's songs along with their own. There are kids in their Sunday finest and kids whose parents just couldn't convince them to wear the jeans without the torn knees. There are kids who belt out the songs and kids who whisper them. There are kids who smile throughout the performance and kids who look like deer caught in the headlights. And there they are, standing together, trying to do their best.
And it's music to our ears.
Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, the parent of two children in District 97 schools, teaches journalism at Columbia College Chicago.