"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city."
The year was 1965 in the freshman English class of Mrs. Kathryn Drake at Lebanon High School. In addition to opening her students' eyes to the works of Shakespeare, the poetry of Byron, and all the other possibilities that lay beyond our little town tucked halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton in southwest Ohio, Mrs. Drake had one ironclad requirement.
We had to memorize the Christmas story from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, King James version. And then, one by one, we had to go to the front of the class and recite those words.
This was a public high school, mind you. No one would dare try that in such a setting today. My goodness, thinking about that brings me visions of mobile TV news trucks parked outside the high school. Maybe The New York Times and The Washington Post would send reporters to cover the story.
But this was small-town Ohio in the mid-'60s, so when Mrs. Drake said to learn it, we did just that.
"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David); To be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
Mrs. Drake is one of those teachers you remember forever. You really had to be on your game in her class, and I admit that wasn't always the case with me. She had a way of snapping you back to reality, though. I can still hear her voice, complete with the sharpest of edges: "Joseph, are you wool-gathering?"
"No, Mrs. Drake."
"Now, what was the poet trying to say here?"
She could be autocratic, sometimes a little cranky, and she was always demanding. She made us read, she made us write, and merely OK wasn't good enough if she believed we could do better.
You had teachers like that, too, didn't you? You remember them — the really good ones, the ones who made you think. They're still out there, even in the crazed "math-and-science, math-and-science" version of education the politicians have created today. There is still room for literature, for creative writing, and for those who make students realize a world of possibilities.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone 'round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."
The separation of church and state is a good thing. I fully understand the objections of those who would say forcing public school students to memorize this went over the line. I still remember walking to the front of the class when it was my turn and stumbling through it, greatly relieved when it was over.
Here it is, though, 46 years later, and I still can recite most of this passage. Every now and then I'll run into a former classmate on Facebook or at a reunion, and we all remember Mrs. Drake.
We were among the last public school students in the country, I am certain, to memorize a Bible story and recite it in class. Two years before my freshman year, the Supreme Court had outlawed Bible reading in public classrooms. By requiring us to do that, Mrs. Drake was already breaking the law.
She is long retired, of course, still living somewhere in Ohio. A bunch of her former students sent her well-wishes several months ago, and I hope for nothing but the best for a marvelous lady and teacher.
I think she would be happy to know that one of her students became a professional writer. I also think she would smile if I told her that on every Christmas for the past 46 years, that story still runs through my head.
"And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
You see, Mrs. Drake, I wasn't wool-gathering.
I was listening.