The life of an English teacher can produce many unpredictable lessons. There is a charming section of Willa Cather’s novel “My Antonia” that deals with a country Christmas in barren Nebraska in the early part of the 20th century.
The hired men chop a little cedar tree, which the family, including an 11-year-old boy, proceed to decorate with homemade creations. It’s a beautiful passage and is heightened by one of the Austrian immigrants who takes holy pictures out of his trunk and puts them on the tree. It’s powerful symbolism of the blending of the old world with the new. It’s historically cultural Austria combined with the rough, fresh country of Nebraska. I liked it for many reasons. My father was an Austrian immigrant, and he owned a farm in Greene County where cedar trees grew in ditches.
I was a young teacher and didn’t mind the 200-mile Sunday drive to obtain a small cedar for my classroom in Marshalltown. I lost a boot in the ditch, and with a damp sock, put basic decorations on the tree late that Sunday evening. The next day I would read the “Antonia” passage with a recording of the Vienna Boys Choir as embellishment under my reading. In the latter part of the class period, each student would make a decoration to represent himself or herself on the tree. It was, in a sense, the combining of my old world as a farm boy with my new world as an educator.
My first-hour class responded beautifully. Had there been a merit-pay scale, my lesson plan would have zapped the criterion.
Ten minutes into second hour, I saw one of the boys flush red. Then he went white. He started wheezing. He appeared to be going to choke.
The decision came quickly. Either the tree or the boy had to leave the classroom. Asthma has no respect for Christmas or literature.
The lesson learned was by the teacher. Throughout their careers, educators must learn and re-learn that the child is more important than the content, the child is more important than the lesson plan, the child is indeed the reason for the classroom.
Lawrence Geisler is a retired teacher who spent 25 years of his career at Marshalltown High School. He wrote this Christmas essay in 1984, and it was published then in the Marshalltown Times-Republican. Geisler is now a member of the Greene County Historical Society and can be reached at 783 J Avenue, Jefferson, IA 50129.
Information provided by Lawrence Geisler, Greene County Historical Society.