The Twelve Gooney Days of Christmas
This holiday memory originally appeared in the School Library Journal, December, 2010.
This holiday memory originally appeared in the School Library Journal, December, 2010.
THE TWELVE GOONEY DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
(A Mostly True Story Steeped for Thirty Years with a Dollop of Nostalgia)
In 1979, on the last day of school before the holiday break, I received one of the best Christmas presents ever. And it wasn’t a cool toy wrapped up under my tinsel-bedraggled tree.
The Hobe Sound Elementary Holiday Extravaganza, was scheduled that day. All grades (K-5th) participated in this pain-filled pageant featuring humiliating skits, an awkward gift-exchange, and warbling off-key carols for the teachers and faculty.
This, we were told, would usher in the festive holiday season. Even then, I was pretty sure no amount of Jingle Bells or Frosty the Snowman was going to make a winter wonderland in hot and humid south Florida where I lived. Regardless, the Holiday Extravaganza went on and preparations were made.
The day prior to the event, each fifth grade student was allowed to choose a partner with whom he would select the perfect song to mumble and murmur in front of the entire school.
The logical partner for me? Greg Kotter.
To say that Greg was a “Wild and Crazy Guy” would be an understatement. He was insane. Like, Mork from Ork insane. He would come in from recess walking on his hands. He ate sand. He would shout out bizarre phrases in the classroom like “Jiggy-jiggy!” and “Have a timidly day!” Sometimes he arrived at school as a character known only as Pilma – an old hermit who lived on a mountain. He was brilliant. He was weird. He was my best friend.
Though Greg and I had been friends since second grade, we now had different teachers for fifth grade. So our meeting for the Holiday Extravaganza was really just a chance for us to catch up on what loot we were hoping to score that year.
Greg had asked for some Mad Libs and a Creepy Crawlies Thingmaker while I held out hope for a Revell model of a ’78 Firebird Trans Am, just like Burt Reynold’s car in Smokey and The Bandit. We spent the entire time dreaming of our Christmas booty only to find that we had missed choosing our song selection for the Holiday Extravaganza.
“Kotter, DiTraleezzi, you boys get over here,” said Greg’s teacher. Mrs. Tasker. She was a saucy southern ferryboat with a dark puff of permed hair and a glass eye (true). Rumors abound that she was deaf in one ear, but nobody dared ask which ear it was. Her deafness was likely caused from her own yelling, which could be heard through the portable walls that contained her classroom. You did not cross Mrs. Tasker. Ever.
Greg and I shuffled over to her. Her great girth, draped in an emerald kaftan, poured over a tiny stool as she dabbed sweat off of her cheeks with a hankie. I had never been this close to Mrs. Tasker before. Her pitted skin looked like an orange rind and it seemed to be smudging off and onto her hankie from the make-up stains that covered the little damp rag.
“Y’all have been dilly-dallying all morning,” she said pointing at us in an accusatory fashion with her hankie. “So here’s your song.” She handed the paper to Greg.
I could still smell the ink from the ditto machine wafting up from the blue type as I peered down to read the title, The Twelve Days of Christmas.
“Aw, c’mon Mrs. Tasker, we –“ Greg started.
“Zip it,” she said. “You two chattybugs should have been paying attention when we announced the song choices. This is the only song left.”
“But only sing-y people in chorus class can do this song, how are we gonna do it?” Greg asked. I saw worry on his face under his thick transitions lenses.
“Too bad, so sad,” Mrs. Tasker rotated on her perch and hacked something up into her hankie.
Deflated, Greg and I flopped down in the corner of the classroom.
“What are we going to do?” I lamented. “This dumb song takes over an hour to sing, and that’s with a full chorus.” I knew this for fact, because my family’s beloved John Denver & the Muppets LP had been playing non-stop since we put up our tree.
Greg stared down at the paper, saying nothing. Was he already trying to memorize all of those lyrics?
“I can’t even sing,” I whined. Across the room, two girls recited Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while performing an intricate hand-clapping game. It was impressive. “Everybody is totally going to laugh at us and not in the good way.”
Greg looked up from the ditto. “That’s it! I have a plan.”
I leaned in close. “Yes. Go on.”
“It involves breaking the rules a bit.”
“I’m with you.”
“We may get into trouble afterwards.”
I pondered this for a beat. “If it’s worth the risk I’ll take it.”
Greg replied, “Oh, it’s worth the risk. They will laugh. They will applaud us. They will love us.”
“I’m in! Let’s do this!”
Greg leaned in close, cupped his hand next to his mouth and sang in a hushed tone to me. It was nothing more than a line – a quick phrase – but it set my brain into hyperspace faster than the Millenium Falcon:
“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, an eyeball in a pear tree.”
I grabbed a stack of construction paper and cracked my knuckles in preparation. I pulled out my chewed up pencil and began to draw. As I did so, I sang, “On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two flaming toads…”
Greg finished, “…and an eyeball in a pear tree.”
We snickered and snorted like the masterminds we were as we laid out our plan for comedic domination of the Holiday Extravaganza.
“Hey, whatcha guys doing?” Rob asked.
Rob was a six-foot tall fifth grader with a wad of curly black hair that would make a Harlem Globetrotter weep. He was holding a giant bell in one hand and The Neverending Night Before Christmas in another. He scanned the twelve drawings scattered on the floor around us.
“What is this?” he asked. His eyes then lit up like he’d just discovered a free stash of Marvel comics. “Ha ha! An eyeball! That’s funny!”
Greg shushed him. I collected the drawings as fast as possible. “No duh, moron!” I said. “But we are not going to reveal our ‘improved’ rendition until we have to sing it at the show.”
“Then no one will stop us!” Greg said with a maniacal giggle.
“So keep your trap shut, Rob,” I added. “Because if Mrs. Tasker finds out, she’ll–“
“She’ll what?” a ferryboat foghorn went off from above. Mrs. Tasker was standing right behind us.
She looked up at Rob, “Run along Jingle-jangle. You’ve got a poem to learn.”
Greg and I tried to slip away with him by employing the “fleeing flock” method of retreat. As seen in many science educational filmstrips, this escape tactic attempts to confuse the predator from isolating one victim in the herd to attack.
“Don’t even try,” she said and grabbed Greg by the ear. “You two have been awfully quiet over here. Have you been memorizing your song? You know its one of my favorites.”
Fear had zapped my ability to speak, especially now that the entire class had stopped rehearsing and was watching. Greg, ever the quick one, responded, “Yup, we’ve been practicing and memorizing every line.”
Mrs. Tasker smiled then focused her gaze on me. “Tony, you are the little artist of our school, right? Are you doing drawings for each of the twelve days?”
I nodded, silent. Could I eat all my drawings before she got them from me?
“Oh, you’re a shy one, eh?” Mrs. Tasker extended a swollen hand to me. It resembled a rubber glove filled with so much sweat that it was about to burst. On the end of each finger a blood red Tyrannosaur claw beckoned for my artwork. “Come on, shy bug, lemme see what you’ve drawn. I am sure they are woonderfuuuul.”
Reluctantly, I handed over the drawings. The words of my mom echoed through my head, “You’ve got a real talent, Tony, I know you’ll do great things with it.”
Mrs. Tasker seized the pictures and began to page through them. Her eyes narrowed as she studied my drawings and Greg’s lyrics on every page. She said nothing.
The entire fifth grade said nothing.
Greg and I shifted uncomfortably waiting for the steamboat boiler to explode.
Would I be grounded for this? Could I be expelled? Can Christmas actually be taken away as a punishment?
Farewell, ’78 Firebird. I’ll miss your T-top and snowflake rims.
Mrs. Tasker tucked the drawings under one of her paddle arms. “So you boys think you’re pretty funny, huh? Well we are gonna see what kind of funny bunnies you really are.”
The entire class Oohed. One kid whispered loudly, “She’s taking the drawings to the principal’s office. They’re gonna git it now.”
“Enough!” Tasker barked, then quickly composed herself. “Back to your rehearsals, students.” She shuffled out of the room. Greg and I didn’t see her for the rest of the day.
* * * *
I tried every which way to get out of going to school the next day but my mom wouldn’t have it. Every excuse of mine was rebutted with the fact that I would miss the gift exchange and the Holiday Extravaganza. Finally I relented.
As I rode the bus to school, I quietly reflected on the pending holiday.
To me, Christmas itself was, in a way, a birthday party for Jesus. I wondered if Jesus got a lot of cool gifts for his birthday. I’m guessing not. So I prayed. I asked Jesus that if I got into a whole lot of trouble at school, and my parents took away Christmas, then perhaps he could let Santa know that I bequeathed my ’78 Firebird model to him. I assured Jesus it was an awesome car and that he would also enjoy Smokey & The Bandit if he hadn’t yet seen it. Seriously, that film was much better than Hooper.
Then I wished him Happy Birthday.
Since it was special half-day of school, the entire student body packed into the cafeteria the morning for Holiday Extravaganza. Greg and I sat together like guilty convicts awaiting our grisly sentence. The skits and recitals went on and on and on forever. After awhile, I started to wonder if our punishment was put off until after the holiday break. I crossed my fingers.
Then our principal, Dr. Bellhammer, took the stage. He called up Mrs. Tasker.
Classmates sitting nearby poked and jabbed Greg and me – taunting and teasing us before we were guillotined for their Roman holiday. My body went numb. This was it.
“Alright, zip it!” Mrs. Tasker growled into the microphone. “Yesterday, two boys – Tony DiTraleezzi and Greg Kotter – thought they were a couple of real Steve Martins when they decided to poke fun of one of my beloved Christmas carols.”
I looked over at Greg with remorseful eyes. “It’s been nice knowing you.” He nodded back solemnly.
“Well, lessee what you all think about it,” Mrs. Tasker nodded and the heavy tasseled stage curtains parted behind her. On stage stood the entire Hobe Sound Elementary Chorus with a huge projection screen hanging behind them.
Whispers of confusion lit up in the crowd. My heart raced and my eyes were wide as the lights dimmed. The choral instructor began to play the piano while the choral group sang:
“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…”
A transparency, made from my drawing, was projected onto the screen. Mrs. Tasker croaked into her mic, “…an eyeball in a pear tree.”
The entire school exploded with raucous laughter. Teachers, in hysterics, spit into their coffee. The lunch ladies cackled and wiped away tears of laughter with their sanitary gloves. Even our school janitor, Mr. Jenkins, sang along as the chorus belted out our entire song:
“The Twelve Gooney Days of Christmas”
One the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
Twelve bones a’crunching,
From eleven dinos fighting,
Ten hobos leaping
Nine zombies dancing,
Eight brains a’squishing,
Seven snot’s a’dripping,
Six scabs a’picking,
Five golden fleas,
Four grungy black things,
Three dead heads,
Two flaming toads
And an eyeball in a pear tree!
That day, at the 1979 Hobe Sound Elementary Holiday Extravaganza my ten year-old dreams were fulfilled. I couldn’t imagine a gift bigger or better than the one Mrs. Tasker gave me – not even a Revell model Firebird with T-top and snowflake rims.
May all of your holiday schemes and wishes come true,