Story and Photos By Beth Donze
Even after 39 years of teaching third graders at St. Edward Confessor in Metairie – 20 of them as director of the school’s Nativity play – Aimee Gardner admits she is still brought to tears whenever she sees her little ones reverently re-enacting Christ’s birth on the altar, at the close of the final school Mass of the calendar year.
True to form, as Gardner watched her students run through this year’s final dress rehearsal on Dec. 13, she welled up as the Three Wise Men presented small inflatables representing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
A shimmering gold star, held aloft by a cast member, lit the way for a trio of brown-robed shepherds and lent a joyful note in front of the church’s large crucifix.
“Third grade is self-contained, so we have a little more flexibility to schedule practices and the time to memorize the lines together,” said Gardner, supervising the action inside church with Raegan Rivere, her fellow third-grade teacher.
Students begin preparing about two weeks before the actual presentation date, reading various Nativity books, memorizing the lines together as a class with their teachers and blocking out the play in church. All “costumed” roles are selected at random, out of a hat; but to make sure each student has a part, those who are not in a featured role form the chorus and must memorize the lion’s share of the lines as narrators.
“The lines rhyme and make a poem, so it is a little easier to memorize,” Gardner said, noting that studies have shown that the brains of 8- and 9-year-olds are the most receptive to memorization. “The memorization of all those lines is a little difficult and it takes patience. When we start to practice, the kids need to be patient and quiet, since we are in church.”
Music is a vital part of St. Edward’s production. Randy Weaver, St. Edward’s music teacher, accompanies the school’s 60-member student chorale on piano and leads the singing of carols interspersed at appropriate times throughout the play, beginning with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” all the way to the play-ending “Silent Night.”
St. Edward’s Nativity always begins with a song sung by the entire third-grade class. This year’s selection was “Emmanuel” – God is with us – by The Dameans.
“Each year we sing a different song. We sometimes repeat songs, but years apart,” Gardner said. “And I have three different Nativity plays that we rotate. The one I pick depends on how many kids are in the grade in a given year, because some versions are more involved and have more parts.”
For this year’s rendition of Christ’s birth, entitled “Follow That Star,” chorus members donned handmade T-shirts with large gold stars and silver rays.
Looking back on two decades of dramatizations, Gardner said last year’s play, which paid homage to New Orleans’ tricentennial, is among her most memorable. It concluded with the singing of Louis Armstrong’s “Christmas in New Orleans,” but with a surprise accompanist on saxophone: St. Edward’s very own principal, Dr. Thomas Becker.
Gardner said last year’s production stands out for yet another reason: her students’ final dress rehearsal had to be rushed because a funeral was scheduled for later that morning. Worried that the noise made by her young performers might have upset the bereaved family as they filtered into church, Gardner went up to the family to apologize for the chaos.
“They didn’t mind at all! They actually had happy tears in their eyes,” Gardner recalled. “They said their mother, who was a teacher, would have loved to have seen the play and hear the children sing. In fact, they said they wouldn’t mind if the students sang at her memorial. I had to politely decline, of course, as we needed to get back to class. But that was an experience!”