Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Christmas Story

Back in December, 1995, I was teaching at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD. I was fully immersed in the rigors of running a high powered string program in the suburban Washington, DC area and the stress was catching up with me. The fall had included All State Orchestra auditions, numerous concerts, including a concerto concert that need to be prepared and performed in a very short time, a couple of fruit-sale fundraisers, and the rigors of my regular teaching schedule; not to mention the traffic, cost of living, and real-life stresses of living in that area. My overall attitude had become pretty gray – especially for me, a generally enthusiastic and positive guy. I loved my work, but my outlook wasn't generally positive. Life had become a treadmill of school, fundraising, musical performances, negotiating traffic, church obligations, and a variety of other stresses. I certainly wasn't in the mood or frame of mind to appreciate the Christmas season in all of its richness.

As we moved toward the holidays and I was immersed in concerto concert rehearsals, my wife and I ran out one evening to get a Christmas tree for our home. We were still relatively new homeowners, but we had a nice tradition already of putting up a live tree at Christmas and enjoyed the process. We had a number of ornaments that were quite important to us, many of which had been given to us by students over the years. Our tree was an important symbol of faith and friendship and really represented us and our, albeit, short history at that point.

This tree, however, had a mind of its own. I don't know if the trunk was a little bit curved or if it was never mounted properly in the stand, but it just didn't want to stand up in the corner of our living room. If memory serves, I even used some wire to try to tie the top to a curtain rod to keep it in a vertical orientation. My recollection is that it had actually fallen down a couple of times and I thought that I finally had it up to stay. It was fully decorated and looked great.

One evening, after a particularly stressful day of teaching and rehearsing for the concerto concert, I arrived home at a late hour. I walked in the front door of the house, only to be greeted by my wife and a tree that was lying in the middle of the living room floor. That was it. The proverbial straw had broken the camel's back. I picked up the tree, ornaments and all, and pitched it out the front door. I was done with it. There would be no tree in the Laird's house this Christmas. My wife was mortified. I was resolved. I was done with trees for the year. The tree, effectively, had come to represent the sum total of my frustration with life, work, over-commitment and all that was out of control in my life.

I went to school the next day and related the story to my Chamber Orchestra, a group of exceptional string musicians that would be accompanying all of the concerto soloists that weekend. As I told the story of my previous evening, I could see the horror on their faces as I told the story of throwing the tree out the front door. At that point, I had more clarity of perspective and thought it was a kind of funny story to relate to my students. They however, perceived it as a result of something much deeper and apparently felt the depth of my frustration with life and work and took my state of mind to heart.

I went on with my crazy schedule for the next couple of days and basically forgot about the situation. I had too many obligations to dwell on any one thing and simply moved on. About two nights later, I was at a rehearsal at my church until fairly late. We were preparing for our annual Christmas Eve service and I would play a fairly large role as an instrumentalist. As I arrived home on that week-day evening, and walked up my driveway and onto the porch, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It was just another quiet night and I was looking forward to getting home and relaxing after a long and busy day.

As I walked into the house, I could tell something was different. I walked into my living room and there was a fully decorated tree all set up in the corner of the room! I could hear some shuffling around in the kitchen and quickly turned around. Like a bunch of clowns climbing out of a phone booth, out came orchestra student after orchestra student from my kitchen. There must have been 15 or 20 of them there: kids from all over Prince George's County, MD. They had contacted my wife and asked if they could come over and set up a new tree. They went and picked one out, cut it down, and came over to my house where my wife had made hot cocoa and cookies for them and made a little party out of it. They weren't just kids that celebrate Christmas, either. There were kids from Jewish and Hindu backgrounds there as well. They were at my home as an expression of kindness and caring for their teacher. It was just the most perfect expression of love that I could have imagined at that time. They cared about me and they wanted to help me find the joy in the season. Did they ever! I still think back to the joy I felt that night and the selfless act of those kids from Eleanor Roosevelt. They gave me a magnificent gift.

One of my favorite aspects of the tree itself was the fact that when they got it into the house it was a little too tall for our 8 foot ceilings. Since it was already mounted in the base, they cut the extra 12 inches or so off of the top of the tree! It made for a perfect look for the living room. I think, in many ways, that made me love that tree even more. They ended up staying at my place for a while that evening. We talked about each of our family traditions and shared a great deal of conversation, laughter, and holiday treats.

Today, I took about 10 of my current students to play a Bach Cantata at a local church. It was such a pleasure to spend some extra time outside of class with this group. In many ways, they remind me of that group back in 1995. Then again, I have been blessed with great students every year. The relationships that we develop are deep and rich. The friendships that we develop, in many cases, last a lifetime. As I was driving the school van, filled with fine student musicians and lovely people, I felt so very blessed to have these opportunities to develop deep relationships with these kids. The cantata went great. It was really a rich morning with them. I am so looking forward to class tomorrow!

Happy Holidays to all of you. I wish you all the true joy of giving and receiving. Today, I am celebrating all that I receive from my students. Thanks to all of you. And, thanks to all of you that have passed through my classroom in the past. You have no idea how much you have given to me. I receive your gifts with love and gratitude.




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