In my childhood, a time existed between Thanksgiving and Christmas when nothing got done. It was the season between family gatherings plus the mental longing of what Christmas might bring, and I’m not talking about Jesus.
At school nobody gave a rat’s ass about the four r’s— reading, writing, arithmetic… and reality. Not everyone was on board with Saint Pete, virgin birth, and the horror story that came 33 years later. What all the kids truly believed in was Xma$.
At this time of classroom malaise, when all children were thinking of candy canes, dolls, mock guns, roller skates and bikes, my fifth-grade teacher gave our class an assignment. Who could draw the best representation of the Nativity scene, a two-dimensional interpretation of the kitschy representations we’d seen in front of every church in town. The winner would be given the opportunity to fill the entire blackboard with their vision of that night in Bethlehem 1965 years ago.
I had no doubt that I’d be the winner, as no one in my class could draw like me—except Jody Carey, a tall girl, that all the boys in the sixth grade agreed was very pretty. Her drawing ability in my 10-year-old estimation was too feminine. She was talented but leaned toward a kind of saccharine sweetness. She always drew kitty cats licking milk out of a bowl, flowers blowing in the wind, or babies with their arms extended for a kiss. The difference between us was enormous. She drew the same things that all the girls who couldn’t draw drew, but better.
The boys in my class couldn’t draw, but that didn’t stop them. They usually sketched soldiers bombed by airplanes. Their depictions appeared more like poorly-drawn birds attacking an ant colony, with lots of blood, explosions and misspelled words crying, “death.” On the other hand I drew Lincoln debating Douglass, Johnny Appleseed planting trees, Babe Ruth hitting a home run and JFK getting his brains blown out. I was a boy after all.
After all the submissions were reviewed, Mrs. Gardener couldn’t decide who was the winner. It was a tie between Jody Carey and William Moriarty. She decided that Jody would have the right side of the blackboard and I’d have the left. Jody would draw Mary holding the baby Jesus and I’d draw the three Wise Men on the way to bestow their gifts. I knew I’d been set up; Jody was drawing the star of the show and I was drawing some dudes I’d never heard of. I was screwed, but wasn’t going to let this hinder my submission.
I believed that if I put a little Good Friday into Christmas I’d win over the boys. I just had to figure out how to make The Wise Men cute, more like Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees than Roman Gladiators to win over a few of the girls.
The next day after lunch Mrs. Gardener invited Jody and me to the board to make our representations in 90 minutes; then the class would vote for the winner and we’d all leave for a two-week vacation.
Jody was very good with the white chalk on the blackboard, perhaps she’d looked at Leonardo DaVinci’s Madonna on the Rocks as she outlined the sweetness of Motherhood with a delicacy that put me on notice. Unfortunately, her rendering of the baby Jesus resembled a child with colic or a load of Heavenly excrement in his diaper. I saw my chance and realized that if my depiction (although not the main focus of the big show) was flawless, I might win.
First, I drew the camels they were riding with a kind of human intelligence, then loosely sketched in the Wise Men before adding the saddles I’d remembered from The Lone Ranger. I paid a lot of attention to their turbans and made sure all the boys could see the swords each Wise Man carried like a soldier in Napoleon’s Army. I added rubies to the scabbards in red with a pastel I borrowed from my brother Tom, hoping the color connection might stir a little blood in the boys’ brains. Then after finishing off the Wise Men’s beards I drew three boys leading the camels. Each looked like a version of Paul McCartney in Arab garb, hoping this might win over one or two girls.
The allotted time for creation had passed and it was now time to vote. Who’d drawn the best depiction of the night when you know who was born… or appeared… or manifested Himself as a God, a marketing Deity or a cartoon in Edendale Elementary School’s fifth-grade class.
Mrs. Gardener instructed the class to write the name of the person they thought best portrayed the manger scene on a piece of paper and then to put it in the Boraxo Soap box the janitor donated for the contest. Mrs. Gardener pulled each piece of paper out, noting each vote in her book. I watched her every move and knew that the vote was 14-10. There was a clear winner, but who? Jody got to draw Jesus and I had to draw some philosophical star gazers from Mecca. It wasn’t a fair competition, it was like Jody was driving a Corvette at the soap box derby. I’d already accepted defeat, as it wasn’t the first time. I knew things were rigged in general and that it paid to either know someone or be in the judge’s good graces, as talent, creativity and craftsmanship were secondary.
Mrs. Gardener came to the front of the class and announced that William Moriarty was the winner of the Manger Art Competition. I was ecstatic! I was finally awarded something I thought I deserved. That all in all the world was a good and just place and that in the end justice prevails. I was ready to come up to the board and accept my prize.
Then, Mrs. Gardener said she needed to make an announcement, that she had to override the vote and give the prize to Jody, because my design had the Wise Men walking away from Jesus, in the wrong direction, which nullified my victory. She asked Jody to come to the board so she could present her with the box of Whitman Samplers as the prize; but not before directing her speech in my direction. “Your drawing was very nice William, but you must listen to directions if you want to get ahead in life, you just can’t do what you want all the time, you must compromise and make allowances for others. Your drawing should’ve been walking toward Jody’s depiction, not the other way around. You’ve made the Wise Men walking away from God.”
Jody came up to the front of the class and accepted the box of candy. She has no shame. Mrs. Gardener then went on about what a great artist Jody was, and that perhaps one day she’d become a famous macrame designer from the lessons she’d taught her. My blood was boiling. I looked around the classroom and not one person challenged the Queen’s royal edict. I stared at my closest friend in the class (Horace Howard) and he just laughed, and mouthed the word “loser.” I was so infuriated that I threw my pencil up into the air while screaming, “Horace, you’re a no-good fink and a coward for keeping quiet.” My pencil stuck in the one of the many holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles that Mrs. Gardener would make us count as punishment for being 10-year-old children.
“William, I’ve had just about all I can take from you in one day. Not only do you disrespect our Lord and Savior but then you’re a sore loser. When we return in 1966 you’ll be sitting in the corner away from the rest of the students and during recess you’ll help Mr. Del Gato clean the classroom. You’ll remain there until you learn some self-control and the understanding that I’m the boss here.”
That day after school, Jody came up to me and asked, “Do you want a piece of the candy I’ve won?” I replied, “No, I’d like all of the candy that I won” and walked away.
It had snowed all day and by three o’clock had turned into a blizzard. Everything had turned white. The snow was coming down so hard I couldn’t see and got lost. I didn’t get home until after five o’clock and my mother, in a not-very worried way said, “I was worried about you. What happened at school today?”
“Oh, nothin’, ma.”