Tuesday 4 December 2018

Politically Correct at Christmas

By Dawn Knox

Mulled Wine

“A new approach to the Christmas Nativity play? Err, what exactly do you mean?” Laetitia Gibbons, class teacher at All Saints’ Junior School, asked the new headteacher. 

“We need to be sensitive to the needs of the entire community, Laetitia,” Emma Skate replied, nodding sanctimoniously.

It was the Nativity Play planning meeting which in previous years, had lasted about fifteen minutes, allowing those present to adjourn to the Petulant Partridge Tavern for the rest of the night. But this evening, the five attendees had already been captive for an hour.

Ruth Abraham, who’d joined the teaching staff years before at the same time as Laetitia, sighed. The planning was not going well. She and Laetitia held similar views and had seen countless Nativity Plays performed throughout the years, and they’d both survived two changes in leadership. The latest headteacher, Miss Emma Skate, was much too young and inexperienced in Ruth’s opinion. She’d only been with them one term and that had been a turbulent few weeks, to say the least. Miss Skate, or Miss Take, as Ruth had heard some of the children mistakenly call her, had tried to bulldoze her way through what had once been the smooth-running routine of the school. Alice Skipper, the head’s personal assistant, had been off sick with stress twice since September and Ruth expected her to hand in her notice at any time. 

The fifth person at the table was Oliver Primm, a newly-qualified teacher who was eager to make a good impression and having nothing with which to compare the current state of affairs in the school, he usually sided with the ever-confident Emma. 

Alice, with pen poised over her notebook coughed nervously. Her eyes were open so wide, Ruth was afraid they might pop out. 

“Are you suggesting that what we’ve always done hasn’t been sensitive to the needs of everyone?” Laetitia asked. Her tone was icy. 

“Certainly not,” said Emma unaware or indifferent to the frostiness, “but this time, under my leadership, I wish the performance to be especially mindful of every single person in the community.”
“I see,” said Laetitia, “Well, what exactly d’you have in mind? This is a Nativity Play, so we’re restricted to the main characters and setting. Of course, we could change the types of animals in the stable…”

“There will be no animals,” said Emma, “The school does not tolerate animal exploitation.”
Animal exploitation? They’re pupils dressed up!” said Ruth, “If we don’t have lots of animals, many of the children won’t have parts in the play.”

“This year, we will not have animals.” Emma crossed her arms.

“But what about the donkey that carried Mary?” asked Ruth.

“Donkeys shouldn’t be beasts of burden,” said Emma, “so definitely no donkeys.”

Alice wrote No donkeys, no animals, on her notepad. 

“Right,” said Laetitia, “Well, perhaps if we decide who’ll play Mary and Joseph—”

“Oh no,” said Emma, “We can’t be seen to favour certain children.”

“We can’t have a Nativity Play without Mary and Joseph,” said Ruth, aghast.

“I beg to differ,” said Emma, “and anyway, what about those families with only one parent or indeed, two carers of the same gender? What sort of message would we send if our representation of a family was made by a man and a woman?”

Alice wrote in her notepad No Mary or Joseph.

There was a pause while the three teachers tried to imagine the scene with no Mary, Joseph or animals. 

“So…ooo,” said Laetitia finally, “in the stable, we have a baby in a manger but no parents?”

“No,” said Emma, “We can’t possibly condone such health and safety violations. A baby in a manger, indeed! Definitely not. And no stable, either. The school must not give the impression that keeping babies in mangers or stables is acceptable behaviour.”

Alice wrote on her list No stable, no manger, no Jesus. 

There was another pause punctuated by Alice’s nervous cough. 

“Well,” said Ruth, “the only other people in the story, are the Angel Gabriel, the shepherds and the Three Wise Men. Do we have any objections to them?”

Emma considered. “Angels?... No. I don’t think we should fill the children’s heads with such things. Shepherds are fine although we’ll have to include shepherdesses too.”

“Yes, yes,” said Ruth hastily, imagining a stage full of boys in dressing gowns with tea towels on their heads and Little Bo Peeps.

“But of course,” Emma added, “we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t raise the children’s aspirations. So, as well as shepherds and shepherdesses, we must have children representing other careers. Perhaps some firefighters, surgeons, lawyers, plumbers, and… well, I’m sure you get the picture.” 

Alice wrote in her notes Consult careers book. 

“But, as for the Three Wise Men,” said Emma, “I’m afraid not. It would send the signal that only men are wise.”

“C…could we, perhaps, have Three Wise Women?” suggested Oliver.

“That would imply that only women are wise,” said Emma.

“Could we have two of each gender?” asked Oliver.

“Hmm, that might work,” said Emma, “although I don’t like the idea of only those four people being described as wise. It infers the rest of the cast aren’t.”

“How about Two Women and Two Men of Average but Completely Sufficient Intelligence?” asked Oliver. 

“Yes, Oliver, I like your thinking,” said Emma.

He beamed. 

Alice made a note. Her usually neat handwriting had become an untidy, jerky scrawl and her cheek began to twitch. 

“So,” said Laetitia, “we have Two Women and Two Men of Average but Completely Sufficient Intelligence as well as children dressed up to represent a variety of careers and occupations… on a bare stage.” 

“Yes,” said Emma.

“And what should they do?” asked Laetitia.

“Oh, you know! The usual things. I thought you and Ruth had put on hundreds of Christmas shows.”
“Hardly hundreds!” said Ruth crossly, “They only occur once a year.”

“Well, surely you’ve done enough of them to know what to do without me spoon-feeding you? Now, we’ve spent enough time on this. I’m off to the gym, so I’ll leave it in your capable hands,” said Emma, slipping her laptop in her bag, putting on her coat and marching out of the staff room.
“I…I… d…don’t think I can stand much more,” said Alice in a quavering voice.  

“I’ve never been so worried,” Alice whispered to Ruth as she peeped through a gap in the curtains on the stage, watching excited parents enter the hall and rush forward to grab the front seats. It appeared that even the thick fog outside had not deterred them from coming.

“Shhh! The children will pick up on your nervousness and there’ll be more trips to the toilets. Those elephant costumes are awfully hard to get on and off,” said Ruth.

“We’re all going to get fired!” Alice wailed.

“Who cares?” said Laetitia. 

“I don’t,” said Ruth, “I’m past caring. It’d be a blessed relief not to work here anymore under that mad woman.”

“You know what? “Alice sighed, “You’re both quite right. Bring it on!”

“Atta girl!” said Laetitia. 

But despite their brave words, Ruth noticed that Alice’s facial twitch had intensified and Laetitia’s eyes darted about nervously – with even more agitation than would normally be expected at a school Nativity Play. 

“Right, let’s line them up,” said Laetitia, nibbling her bottom lip nervously.

Mary and Joseph at the head of the queue were accompanied by a child in a grey shark onesie. He had large, cardboard ears pinned to his hood, a tail attached to his bottom, and a saddle made out of sugar paper which covered his dorsal fin. With luck, the audience would realise he was really a donkey.  

This is what happens when you rely on parents to provide costumes, Ruth thought. She gave the donkey a reassuring pat on the head.

The inn-keeper and her husband came next, followed by assorted animals. The elephants led the way, a lion next, then bears. The parents had been asked to provide suitable animal costumes but some had obviously not read the letter carefully, and others had only seen the word ‘costume’. Two witches, one Disney princess, a Christmas elf and Darth Vader accompanied the penguins at the back of the animal procession. Several parents had angel outfits belonging to older siblings and they’d insisted their children should use the costumes, so the Angel Gabriel and six white-robed, tinsel-haloed apprentice angels followed the Dark Lord of the Sith. The final characters to go on stage were the three Wise Men and shepherds– many of whom were played by girls. 

Let it not be said that All Saints’ doesn’t observe reasonable political correctness, thought Ruth.
She checked her watch. 

It was seven o’clock. 

Laetitia, with hands poised over the keys of the piano, waited for the cue. Ruth took a deep breath and nodded theatrically in her direction. 

Laetitia’s hands plunged.

The following morning at assembly, Emma said, “I’m so sorry, children, I’m afraid I was caught in the fog and missed last night’s Christmas Nativity performance.” She gazed at Oliver, who was studying his feet; the tips of his ears had turned bright pink, “but I’ve heard from several parents and governors this morning that it was a great success. So, congratulations!” She beamed at the children.
“Thank you, Miss Skate,” chorused the children and under her breath, Ruth muttered, “Thank you, Mistake!”

Laetitia and Ruth met in the ladies at playtime. 

“Has Emma said anything to you?” Laetitia asked as soon as she was sure they were alone.
“Nothing at all. How about you?”

Laetitia shook her head, “I think we got away with it. She obviously knows what happened last night.”

“Alice told me the Chair of Governors phoned to congratulate her. Emma could hardly say she’d expressly forbidden such a performance.”

“Our plan wouldn’t have worked if Oliver hadn’t played his part. I must admit, I wondered if he’d have the nerve to go through with it. He’s so afraid of upsetting Emma. But he obviously followed our instructions to the letter. Although I must say he drives a pretty hard bargain. I’ve got to do all his playground duties from now until July. But at least the Nativity Play is over until next year. And from the way Emma was looking at Oliver this morning, she obviously had no idea he staged the breakdown of his car and left them stranded in the middle of nowhere until the play was over.” 

“Hmm,” said Ruth, “if I was you, I’d tell Oliver to do his own playground duty. If Alice’s information is correct, he’s already benefitted from the subterfuge.”

“Benefitted? What d’you mean?”

“Well, after he picked Emma up from home, he pretended to break down as we’d arranged. However, she didn’t like waiting in the car in all that fog, so she insisted they went to the Wickleston Arms Hotel to wait for the breakdown van which Oliver said he’d called. Coincidentally, it’s where Alice’s sister works and she phoned up this morning to tell Alice all about it. Apparently, after several rounds of drinks while they waited for the breakdown van, they finally booked a room for the night.”


“Yes! And let’s say that last night, the head and a junior member of the teaching staff didn’t pay too much attention to political correctness.”  

 About the author

Dawn’s third book ‘Extraordinary’ was published by Chapeltown in October 2017. She has had three other books published as well as stories in various anthologies, including horror and speculative fiction, and romances in women's magazines. Dawn's first play to commemorate World War One has been performed in England, Germany and France. Her second play about WWI was performed in November 2018 and currently there are plans to take it to Germany www.dawnknox.com

Hugs from Dawn

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