Important note: While the setting of this story is eerily similar to Brownsville Mennonite School, and it features a certain piece of greenery that also appeared at BMS under similar circumstances, I promise that this story is a work of fiction. The setting is real-ish, but the characters and plot are all made up.
Peace on Earth
By Emily Smucker
Christmas had thrown up in the corner store. Decorations spilled out of bins. Kristen heard someone curse loudly, and when she walked down the chip aisle to investigate, she saw Clive, on a step ladder, struggling to hang a giant “PEACE ON EARTH” banner on the back wall.
“Got any coffee?” she called to him.
“Yep,” he said, pounding in one last nail. “Donuts too. You want a nice, fresh one or a half-price one that didn’t sell yesterday?”
“Give me the fresh,” said Kristen. “It’s gonna be a long day.”
“Oh yeah?” Clive jumped off the ladder and surveyed his work. “What’s happening over at the school today?”
“It’s just crazy this time of year. Everyone’s trying to get tests done before Christmas break, and plan the Christmas party, and practice for the Christmas program. But that will be over tonight, thankfully.”
“Your Christmas program is tonight?”
“Yep. 7 PM. You’re invited, if you want to come.”
As soon as the invitation was out of her mouth, she regretted it. Stocky, balding, chain smoking Clive was her friend, of sorts. She saw him every day on her way to school when she stopped in for her morning coffee, and she usually ended up ranting to him about her job. The students who never got their homework done. The parents who didn’t care. Clive heard it all. But the reason she told him these things was because he had no connection to her little church school. And anyway, what would people think if he showed up, with his yellow teeth and tattoos? And he’d for sure need at least one smoke break.
Oh well. She couldn’t exactly rescind the invitation now.
“Where is your school, again?” Clive asked.
“You’ll see it on the right as you drive out of town. Parkville Mennonite Church.”
“Oh yeah, I know where that is. I didn’t realize there was a school there, too.”
“The school is just a few rooms connected to the church building. But the program will be held in the church sanctuary,” said Kristen.
“Maybe I should give you the sign for your school,” said Clive, pouring her coffee into a red to-go cup and fetching a donut with his little tongs. “It seems a little religious for me.”
“Huh? What sign?”
He nodded to the back of the store. Peace on Earth.
Kristen resisted the urge to laugh out loud at the thought of hanging such a sign in her chaotic classroom. “You know, it would be a shame to take it down after you spent so much time hanging it up,” she said, handing over a $5 bill.
He handed her the coffee and donut, as well as her change. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? ‘Peace on Earth’ for the craziest time of year.”
It did seem ironic, but Clive was an atheist and she didn’t want to agree with his atheism. She smiled uneasily. “Um, well, thanks for the coffee! Merry Christmas, Clive!”
As Kristen walked toward the door, the radio stopped it’s progression of Christmas carols for an important announcement. “It’s just about time for our Christmas tree giveaway! Caller number 9 will get a brand new Christmas tree…”
The doors of the corner store shut behind her as she walked towards her car, in the cold drizzle of December.
“Oh there you are,” said Miss Troyer when Kristen walked into the classroom. “Did Madison hand in her Social Studies PACE to you yesterday?”
“Did she quote the Gettysburg Address to you?”
“Oh. Okay. She needs to do that before she can take the test.”
Kristen felt her heart sink, partially from the subtle failure vibes, and partially because this was one more thing she had to push a student to do before they’d be ready to leave for Christmas vacation.
“Can’t she just take the test, and study the Gettysburg Address over the holidays?” Kristen asked.
“Did Madison suggest that to you?” Miss Troyer asked. “That is a classic example of a student trying to make you forget. Don’t fall for it.”
This was the problem with being an assistant teacher instead of the head teacher. She had no power to give Madison grace, but she would, she knew, have to do all the grunt work to study with Madison until the Gettysburg Address was memorized forwards and backwards.
The door opened. Xander and Skyler Miller ambled in and stood sleepily by their desks. They were closely followed by Amber Troyer, Miss Troyer’s niece and Xander and Skyler’s first cousin. She usually rode to school with them.
“Miss Kristen, did you make my Mary costume yet?” Amber asked. She always whined when she asked questions, and it set Kristen on edge.
“I told you, I didn’t have time to make a whole new costume,” Kristen replied. “I just shortened the lavender robe from the costume closet.”
“But it’s waaaay too big for me!” Amber whined.
“We’ll add a belt. You’ll be fine.”
More students were pouring into classroom. Danny, who always had a slight mildew smell, as though his shirt had sat in the washer too long before getting dried. Philip, who was at that stage of life where he thought making fun of people would make him cool and likable. And Madison, who was supposed to memorize the Gettysburg address.
“Wow Miss Kristen. You’re drinking corner store coffee again? What, there was no pond scum available?” said Philip, with a sideways glance at Madison.
Madison, as usual, ignored him as she walked past to her desk.
“Wait. Madison?” Kristen was just about to ask her about the Gettysburg address, when Terance came bursting into the classroom.
“Hey! Hey!” Terance always reminded Kristen of a puppy with too much energy, but today he was in rare form. “Hey, is Dave here? I need to borrow his truck.”
“Borrow his truck?” Mrs Troyer looked up from her computer. “Why on earth do you need to borrow Dave’s truck? The bell is going to ring in five minutes.”
“I won a Christmas tree!” he almost yelled.
“Yeah! They were giving one away on the radio, and I was the ninth caller!”
“You need my help too, right?” said Xander.
“And mine!” said Skyler.
“I can help! Please Mrs Troyer, can I go help?” Philip chimed in. “Terance is too scrawny to heft a Christmas tree by himself.”
“A Christmas tree? What’s this about a Christmas tree?” three more students were entering the classroom.
“I won a Christmas tree on the radio!” said Terance. “Where’s Dave?”
The bell rang, but everyone ignored it. “Quiet!” said Mrs. Troyer, her calm, chilling voice inches from being raised. “Quiet, or you’re all getting demerits.”
The students shushed. Then Dave walked in, late, and the uproar started again.
“Quiet!” Mrs. Troyer yelled, this time. She rarely yelled. Everyone, including Kristen, shrank into their desks. “Terance, I’m happy for you, but there’s no use picking up the tree now. Wait until after school, when you can take it straight home.
“But I don’t want to take it home, Mrs. Troyer. I want to give it as a gift to the class. The girls were talking about decorating the class for Christmas anyway.”
“There’s only three days left of school before Christmas break!”
“But don’t you want them to be pretty days of school? And don’t you want a real Christmas party on Friday? We can put the gifts for the gift exchange under the tree! Please please please?” He fell down on his knees before her, dramatically.
Mrs. Troyer couldn’t help but smile. “Fine.” Terance leapt up, a grin on his face. “But you have to be back by first break, because that’s when dress rehearsal starts.”
The uproar started again, as all the boys tried to convince Mrs Troyer that Terance needed them to go along and help with the tree hauling. Kristen just sat back and sipped her coffee. It was funny, she thought, how some students could get by with so much more than other students. Amber, for instance, was technically an angel student, as far as grades and demerits went. But her terrible whine made Kristen want to never, ever, give her what she wanted. But Terance, who was actually a rather naughty student, could get by with a lot just by being his happy, charming, joking self.
The bell jangled extra loudly as Kristen entered the corner store for the second time that day.
“More coffee?” Clive asked.
“Actually, I need a tree stand,” said Kristen. “You sell those, right? And some of those little Snickers bars to bribe kids with. And do you have some extra strength double sided tape? Is that a thing? The bricks keep falling off the Bethlehem Inn. Oh and safety pins. And yes, coffee.” She paused. “Rope! Do you happen to have rope?”
“I have thin twine, but if you’re planning to hang one of your students, I’m not sure it’s strong enough.”
She laughed despite the morbidity, because it hit a little too close to home right then. “Nope. Belts for the wise men.”
“And the Christmas tree stand?”
“Don’t even ask,” she said wearily, hunting down the twine and tape as Clive filled another coffee cup. She put all the items on the counter and he rang them up for her.
“I hope your program goes well,” he said, handing her the receipt.
The “your program” grated on Kristen’s nerves. It wasn’t supposed to be her program. Mrs Troyer was directing it, and Mrs Bontrager, Madison’s mother, had volunteered to teach the music. When asked, Kristen had agreed to be assistant director, but she didn’t think it would mean very much. Maybe telling a few students to speak up or pay attention.
But before she knew it, it was her job to find costumes for everybody, and her job to scour Pinterest for set ideas, and her job to make sure the students knew their lines. Besides telling the students to speak up or pay attention.
Mrs Troyer sat on the front bench, directing, but that was it. It was similar, Kristen thought bitterly, to the way the entire school was run. Mrs Troyer did the important stuff, but Kristen got the brunt work.
But after Kristen had a few sips of warm coffee, and was alone in her car for the few minutes it took to get back to school, she decided that this assessment of Mrs Troyer was really unfair. Mrs Troyer was a great teacher, she really was. She was pragmatic. And while sometimes abrasive, you always knew where you stood with her. There was nothing false about her.
Kristen’s annoyance at the moment was mostly centered on Mrs Bongrager. Mrs Bontrager was a sweet lady, but…well…she was supposed to be the music teacher. Just music. But, “oh, don’t you think it would just be so much nicer if the wise men had belts?” She’d said. “Those costumes are just so shapeless.” And so there was Kristen, the afternoon before the program, buying twine at the corner store.
Her arrival back at school caused quite a stir. Everyone was in the church, going through the dress rehearsal. But Terance saw her and leaped out of his seat. “Did you get a stand for my tree?”
Before she knew it, all the older boys had fled the sanctuary and were racing down the hallway that connected the church portion of the building to the school wing. “It’s just the little kids singing. We’ll be back soon,” said Terance, when Kristen tried to stop them.
The tree was leaning against the wall in the school entryway. Dave and Terence wrestled it into the classroom, where they tried to set it up.
“It’s too tall!” Skyler called out helpfully.
“We need to cut the top off,” said Dave.
“Let’s just set it up in the entryway,” said Kristen. “There’s plenty of room out there. Terance! Where did you get that knife?”
Terance looked at the giant knife in his hands. “Umm…”
“You know knives aren’t allowed in school, right? Hand it over. And let’s haul this back into the entryway.”
“But then the little kids will get the Christmas tree too! I want it to be just for us older kids!” Terance complained, somehow managing to still sound charming. “It’s my tree, I should get to decide where it goes. Come on. I’ll just use my knife to cut off the top, and then you can confiscate it,” he said, giving her puppy-dog eyes.
Kristen’s patience was wearing extremely thin. But was this a battle worth fighting? Mrs. Troyer wouldn’t have allowed it. The girls would have gasped in shock at the very idea of mercilessly chopping off the top of that beautiful tree. But they weren’t here, and they didn’t have to deal with this.
“Fine,” said Kristen.
The tone of her voice made all the boys straighten up and get to business. Terance hacked off the top of the tree, and the boys set it up in the stand and added some water.
Then it was Kristen’s job to get everyone back to dress rehearsal, including some girls who had wandered off to the bathroom and never come back. Amber’s voice drifted out of the bathroom door as Kristen walked up to it. “And I told her I had a nice dress I could wear to play Mary, and she told me I didn’t need to because she’d make me something, and then she made me wear this. Miss Kristen just wants to control everything.”
“You’re needed on stage,” said Kristen, opening the door. Her voice was tense. She’d decided, once and for all, that it was useless to try to liked by her students.
The girls filed past her. Amber’s chin was up, but at least Madison looked ashamed. As they walked away, Kristen found herself confronted by Mrs. Bontrager. “Oh, Kristen!” said Mrs. Bontrager brightly, waving a program that Kristen had designed the day before. “Don’t you think it would just be so nice if the programs had a picture of the nativity on them? I just think that would be so nice. And I noticed there were no Bible verses in it. Don’t you think it would be so nice to have some Bible verses in it?”
By 6:50 pm, Kristen found herself perched on the back bench of the sanctuary, where the makeshift lighting and sound booth was located. She surveyed the program in her hands, still warm from the printer, but containing both a picture of the nativity and several Bible verses.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Kristen read the familiar verse and sighed. She was inches away from believing in Clive’s atheistic notions about Christmas. It did seem awfully un-peaceful, and currently, Kristen felt very little good will toward men.
Oh! It was 7:00. She dimmed the lights, and the children filed in, singing as they came.
The program went relatively well, all things considered. Dave only forgot one of his lines. Only two bricks fell off the Bethlehem Inn. The sound system only glitched a couple times. And then they were singing the last song, the whole school, standing on the risers with their battery-powered candles which gave them all an angelic glow.
Peace on the earth good will to men
From Heaven’s all-gracious King
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the Angels sing
Afterwords there were finger foods in the fellowship hall. Kristen passed through the din, collecting costumes from all the places they’d been haphazardly strewn.
“I liked it. You did well.”
Kristen looked up, but the smell of cigarette smoke had already alerted her to who it was. “Clive! You made it!”
“Yep! Wouldn’t miss it. I’m not religious, but it’s a nice story. And the little kids sure look cute in their sheep costumes. You did good.”
“Thank you,” said Kristen. This acknowledgement of all the work she’d put into the production was gratifying.
Then, “I brought you something,” said Clive. He held up a torn box of Christmas lights. “Someone knocked it down, and it busted. I was just gonna pitch ‘em, but I thought I might as well bring ‘em for you. You just got a Christmas tree today, right?”
“Hey Clive!” Terance was rushing by, his plate piled high with cookies and chips and green rice krispy bars. “Hey, what’s that?”
“Clive brought some Christmas lights for the tree,” said Kristen. She was surprised that the two of them knew each other, but it actually made sense. Terance was forevermore forgetting his lunch, and begging to be allowed to go to the corner store to pick up something to eat.
“Cool!” said Terance. He balanced his water cup between his plate and his chin, and took the lights in his free hand. “Xander! Madison! Look, I got lights!”
A crowd of students collected around him, and they all disappeared into the classroom. Great. Now they’d all be eating in there, leaving one more room to vacuum after everyone was gone.
It’s over. The worst is over. You should be relaxing, Kristen told herself. So after one last trip to return the rest of the costumes to the costume closet, she got herself a plate of food and sat down next to Daisy, an old friend from high school. Daisy was already half done with her food, but Kristen launched into conversation anyway. “Remember when that was us, acting in the Christmas program every year?” she asked.
Daisy laughed. “Oh yes. Remember the year when I played Mary, and Mr Krabill wanted me to wear that awful costume that made me look actually pregnant?”
“Yeah!” said Kristen. “And then Myron was so jealous that Rob got to play Joseph, and help you hobble your way to Jerusalem.”
“Mr Krabill didn’t think my wobble looked pregnant enough. Or that Rob was helping me enough. It was so awkward!”
They laughed at the memories. Funny, Kristen thought, that only several years after that incident Daisy was pregnant for real. And married. To Myron.
“Oh, hey Kristen!” It was Myron himself. Before Kristen could respond, he’d turned to his wife. “Are you ready to go honey? I want to get home before the snow starts.”
“Wait, it’s gonna snow?” Kristen asked.
“Yep!” said Myron. Then, “Where’s Cassie?” he asked Daisy.
“Last I saw her she was in the rec room with her friends.”
Myron went off to fetch their daughter. So strange, Kristen thought. Only a few years older than me, and they already have a first grader.
“Well, I have to go,” said Daisy, shoving the last bits of her food into her mouth. “It was great catching up.”
“Of course!” said Kristen. “Drive safely!”
With the threat of snow looming, it didn’t take people long to clear out. Some people stuck around for a bit to help with cleanup, but soon it was just Kristen, Mrs Troyer, and Mrs Bontrager left. “I just think we should make things nice for church on Sunday!” Mrs Bontrager said, grinning sweetly, and Kristen rushed off to make sure the sanctuary was vacuumed, and the urinals were flushed, and the sticky juice residue was wiped off the table upstairs.
She met Mrs Troyer in the foyer. “I’m taking off,” said Mrs Troyer. “It’s starting to snow, and I live up in the hills. But I think things are pretty much cleaned up. Maybe just double check that the lights are off.”
And she walked away, through the large front doors of the church.
The church was empty. Dark. Almost hollow feeling. Kristen walked down the hall, switching off all the forgotten lights. The women’s bathroom. The utility room. The far light in the kitchen. Then, into the school section, where she switched off the light in the office.
It was completely dark now, except for the faintest glow seeping under the door of the main classroom. Oh yes, the Christmas lights on the tree. Should those be switched off too?
Kristen opened the door, and for the first time, saw the tree in all its glory.
In the dimness, you didn’t notice that the top was lopped off. It was strung with Clive’s lights, which twinked, faint and alluring. And there were other decorations too. Things the children must have cobbled together with construction paper, and tape, and some glitter and pipe cleaners from that random drawer in the yearbook room. All enchanting, and dangly, and festive.
The absolute stillness deceived her, and it took her a second to notice that she wasn’t the only person in the room. It seemed that Mrs Bontrager hadn’t left yet, and she sat cross-legged at the foot of the tree, flanked by her daughter Madison. Dave was here, and Terence. And Clive, too. Crusty old Clive, staring up at the beautiful tree, transfixed.
The snow began falling in earnest, tumbling softly in the glow of the lamppost outside the window. And it occurred to Kristen that the hard part really was over. Tomorrow it was just a couple self-tests and a bunch of tests, and then the Christmas party on Friday, and then there’d be a whole week-and-a-half of vacation.
She should leave soon, she knew. Before the snow started sticking. But first, enchanted by the atmosphere, she, too, sat on the floor and enjoyed the moment. Because for the first time that season, she actually felt it.
Peace on Earth.