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Timely words of comfort and joy

The middle school children had been told to invite someone a generation older than their parents. "Ask Grandma and Grandpa, then," suggested my daughter when Ben came home. So it was that my wife and I found ourselves at the receiving end of one of those seemingly compulsory events which proliferate in schools at Christmas - an afternoon nativity for pensioners, with carols, tea and cakes.

We both had a distinct feeling of deja vu - familiar territory indeed for two recently-retired teachers. A girl (Year 7, we thought) welcomed us and took our coats and another showed us to a table. Instinctively we relived the patient instructions which must have been given: be polite, speak up, and smile.

Ben and his friend approached, cast in the role of waiters. I hoped my "Good afternoon, Ben" didn't sound too cold and formal but I was more conscious of how easily children can be embarrassed.

My greeting contrasted with that of the couple at the next table, loudly complaining that they thought their grand-daughter was going to serve them. Where was she?

Choir, small orchestra and dancers duly appeared. For weeks there would have been rehearsals, decisions about what children should wear, what order to line up in, where to stand. Our professional hearts were with the hard-pressed staff, struggling to maintain true Christmas spirit at the end of a gruelling term.

As ex-teachers, too, we almost willed the children to do their best, to be successful. The teacher in us, too, inwardly seethed at a couple of our fellow guests who never stopped talking throughout.

We were all to join in the singing to the more familiar carols - my wife and I sang lustily. Others joined in, but many remained sullenly silent or pointedly sipped tea or had their mouths full of cake at the vital moment.

But be encouraged, all of you who are putting on your nativity plays, your carol concerts and your teas for senior citizens. In spite of some who fawn embarrassingly over the children, others who chatter, and still others who refuse to join in, hidden in your audience there may well be someone who knows, sympathises and genuinely appreciates.

Michael J Smith is a retired head of modern languages living in Norfolk

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