The Tarkington School Christmas show was my first time to walk through school hallways since the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Students — K through 4 — were racing through the mobbed corridors as parents were trying to herd them toward their teachers while hurriedly exchanging hellos with grandparents and friends.
There were ghosts there, too. I doubt I was the only parent who wasn’t haunted by what had happened at just such a school, in hallways just like these, in classrooms so universally familiar — with rows of desks and posters and student artwork and all the seasonal decorations that make a school feel cheerier than home.
I could not help but see in the faces of these scurrying children the images of the Sandy Hook children I had seen on television, in newspapers and on websites the past few days. And somehow the Tarkington School students swirling about me tonight were all of America’s children.
I watched the joy they found in each other’s company, the pre-performance antsiness, the tugging at parents’ hands, the last-second hugs and costume adjustments, and the urgent, doting teachers trying to corral all this, to bring some order to the rocketing, little-kid exuberance.
Tarkington is a South Bend, Indiana, public school. It’s a mix of Asian and Middle Eastern, Caucasian and African American. My wife pointed out an elder from the local tribe of Native American people who was there to see his grandchildren. I spotted Abdul, whose family is Jordanian; he was at our house last Saturday. I said hi to Petrice; her parents are from Jamaica and our kids have played together in both homes.
So I thought about children everywhere, our littlest incarnations of hope and love, whatever world surrounds their family.
They eventually took their places on stage, rows of dressed-up children on risers — squirmy, stiff, self-conscious and shy, all the little-kid personalities showing up. Parents waved from the audience and some children waved back, sheepish or happy to have connected. Others scanned the sea of faces for the welcome ports of mom and dad.
But when I looked closely into those bright and shiny faces, I had to look away.
The way feelings sweep over us can sometimes be too much.
I’m sure every parent felt those pangs of love and possible loss more sharply this year because we’ve been so horribly jarred into seeing just how fragile, how precious, how brilliant these little lives are. We all bear the pain of Newtown. We all cringe at the collision of innocence and horror.
So I watched instead the three teachers standing in front of the stage, directing the chorus of fidgety kindergartners, demonstrating the hand movements they wanted them to emulate, gesturing for them to sing more loudly, coaxing and urging and cheerleading them on.
As the kindergartners gave way to first-graders, I looked around the packed auditorium — the proud and beaming faces, the smiling grandparents looking back over two generations, the fathers recording video, the mothers holding up their smart phones and trying to bring single faces into focus.
The older kids seemed more comfortable on stage. One of our sons had a few lines to recite, the other played a tambourine, our daughter was a lady dancing (the ninth day of Christmas). There were musical tributes to Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. No one seemed to mind — though I did wonder how it would be perceived by others, the Muslim children singing about Hanukkah, the Jewish children singing about Jesus.
At some point I’m sure, adults will intervene. But the theme on this night and in this particular place was celebrating what we have in common, the peace and love of the season. Leave it to others and to another day to divide us over differences.
The finale was the singing of “Silent Night.” All the kids crowded together up front. Every face — every one — was beautiful. And the voices were sweet, angelic — they were beautiful, too. Maybe more so because of what happened just last week.
I don’t know what lesson to draw from all this or what conclusion to write. It seems like a cliché to end with children singing in harmony, showing us how to get along, in this season of peace and love, of God coming among us. The world they are walking into just isn’t that nice.
And I don’t know what to say about gun control, or mental illness, video games or ensuring school safety. I don’t even have advice about parenthood.
Still, on this particular night, in this particular place, there was a piece of peace, and parents who probably felt more, loved more, were a little more patient, a little less uptight, because something happened to remind them what to hold tight to, what to value above all else.
May we all feel it so strong tomorrow, too, and the next day, and the day after that.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.