This story takes place in Prince George's County Maryland around December 1995. In those years, I was the Orchestra Director at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland. As many of you know, Eleanor Roosevelt had/has a incredibly vibrant music program with multiple orchestras, bands, and choirs as part of the school music program. In those years, Eleanor Roosevelt was the largest high school in Maryland and December was always an incredibly busy time. My work in December always centered around three primary activities. One was preparation and performance of numerous holiday concerts with my three orchestras. These included holiday concerts with the Symphony Orchestra and Concert Orchestra and a Concerto Concert with the Chamber Orchestra accompanying exceptional student soloists who were selected by audition in an extraordinarily competitive environment.. All music educators know that the holiday concert season is incredibly taxing and always carries a bit of stress along with the fun of performing. That was certainly the case for me in 1995. Another of my regular activities were various gigs throughout the Prince George's County region and many performing opportunities at our church, Christian Community Presbyterian Church in Bowie Maryland. I love the holidays because they always mean that I will be spending a great deal of time with my instrument in my hands. This was certainly the case in 1995. Finally, as part of the instrumental music program at Eleanor Roosevelt, there was a huge citrus fruit sale and delivery which occurred right around the holidays. My dear friend, ERHS Band Director Sally Wagner would always say that the community surrounding Eleanor Roosevelt High School had "an inalienable right to fruit" and we would always keep that promise. The fruit sale always involved one day of unloading at least one and a half tractor trailers full of citrus fruit and sometimes it would be two full trailers. The next day folks would pick up their previously ordered fruit and we would distribute all of that fruit almost as quickly as it came off the truck. So, as you can imagine, December of 1995 was extraordinarily busy and not without its level of stress.
At home, my wife and I had a home we had purchased just a year or two earlier and were enjoying our new responsibility of decorating the house for the holidays. This included a fresh cut Christmas tree we had purchased and proudly placed in our new, albeit inexpensive, tree stand. We decorated the tree with all of the ornaments students had given us over the years and it was displayed prominently in our living room. One day, after a long day at work, I returned home to find that the tree had fallen. I picked up the tree and worked to rebalance it and make sure that it was stable in the stand. Within another 24 hours the tree had fallen again. When I returned home after a particularly stressful day of teaching and rehearsing, I found the tree down yet again. So, in a more frustrated state this time, I picked it back up and re-situated the tree in the stand hoping that it would stay up at this point. As we moved another day closer to the concerto concert and other stressful holiday activities, the tree was clearly unstable. After one particularly hard day I returned home to find the tree and all the ornaments spread across the living room floor and in a fit of rage I tossed it out the front door, ornaments and all. My wife, Barbra, came home and was mortified at the carnage in our front yard. She asked me if we were going to replace it and in my frustration I said, "Absolutely not. I am done with Christmas this year." I am sure she remembers this differently, but my recollection is that there wasn't much argument. She figured the Christmas ship had probably sailed.
I went to work the next day and while in the midst of rehearsal with the Chamber Orchestra, I told them the ugly story of the Christmas tree. My 20 or so string students in the room just looked at me with complete horror and disbelief in their eyes as I recounted the story. Clearly, Mr Laird had lost the Christmas spirit. He had officially become the Grinch.
I continued through my day without giving it another thought. I had rehearsals all day, rehearsals after school, and other rehearsals for gigs into the evening. By the time I was able to return home I was absolutely exhausted and ready for a good night's rest. I walked into the house and things seemed unusually quiet. I stepped into my living room only to see a new tree setup in my living room completely decorated with all of our ornaments. I couldn't believe my eyes. Then, I heard a bit of a commotion in my kitchen and out came all of the students from the ERHS Chamber Orchestra. They had converged on the Laird household earlier that evening, brought a new tree, set it up, and decorated it while my wife quickly provided and imprmptu party with hot chocolate and popcorn. Even now, nearly 30 years later, my eyes are misty as I recall the incredible gift those teenagers gave me that Christmas. All they intended to do that night was to bring a little joy back into our little home. They did that and so much more. It was such an expression of love from students to a teacher they provided me that night. And for that matter, my wife as well. We talked and laughed and told stories for quite some time that night.
Another strong recollection of mine is that the tree was a little too tall for our living room. Rather than cutting it off at the bottom to make it fit in the room, they cut it off at the top so that the tree had no point, but a flat top where they had whacked off 12 inches or so. It was absolutely hilarious to look at. I am not positive, but I think that was the brilliant work of cellist, Gil Min. (One of you can correct me if that is wrong!) That made it even more special and provided lots of laughter in good feelings as we celebrated their accomplishment of totally surprising me.
Isn't that what the spirit of Christmas is all about? Bringing joy into the lives of others. Caring for the people we encounter every day. And making life brighter for the people around us. I think of that act of kindness every year around the holidays. I hope those students do as well. They certainly impacted my life that day. I am so fortunate to hear from students frequently about how much I impact their lives. I hope they all know how much they impact mine. If you happen to be one of my former students and are reading this, please know that in some way you have made my day brighter, my life richer, my joy a little stronger over the years.
I wish you all an incredibly happy holiday and some of the joy that I experienced back during the Christmas of 1995.