Well Rum Pa Pum Pum

December 23, 2018

Mary nodded, pa rum pa pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pa pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pa pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pa pum pum,
Rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pa pum pum
Me and my drum

Up until last week, I had misinterpreted “The Little Drummer Boy” for nearly 40 years. I understood that the drummer boy didn’t have much. Apparently, he had a drum. It’s unclear about whether or not he had sticks. I understood what the song seems to be conveying—give your best no matter what you have. I understood that Mary, the ox, the lamb (or ass, depending on how many giggles you want out of your stage performers), and baby Jesus all dug the drum solo.

However, I made an assumption that I now believe to be incorrect. I believed that the little drummer boy was a previously-unrecognized prodigy who pounded that percussion so perfectly, he made the unmentioned Joseph take out his iPhone and immediately add the performance to his latest Instagram story. I thought the drummer boy’s rhythms were worthy of a fist bump from Questlove.

Then I saw my son’s school program.

During the lead-up to Elliot’s Christmas program, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. He didn’t seem to know any lyrics, he was clueless about a costume, and he generally seemed like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had zapped him with a pageantry-specific amnesia device.

We showed up Thursday night with precious little knowledge about the performance before letting our son wander off to the back with his teacher. The printed program revealed that Elliot’s class would be performing “The Little Drummer Boy” (aka “The Carol of the Drum”). Soon the canned music started up and we saw Elliot walking down the aisle with a jembe drum in his arms and a smile on his face. He and his classmates then proceeded to hit the drum whenever the singer on the CD would say rum pa pum pum. I’m guessing that the class average for beats on rhythm was around 12% and probably 5-10% of those were just fortunate coincidences. Elliot was especially challenged, since the drum was nearly his size and a bit slippery to boot. He kept on having to grab it, turn it, and pull it back up, all while maintaining friendly eye contact with the audience. He even used his knee to boost the drum up a few times.

But through it all, he never seemed to get frustrated about his sliding drum. He never despaired that his classmates were getting more beats on rhythm. He kept a smile on his face for almost the entire time.

To a professional choir director, his performance may have seemed like chaos. At the very least, it was unpolished. But I could suddenly see clearly. The haphazard drumming in front of me was probably pretty close to what the drummer boy could muster. He’s no confident kid leading up to his solo. He’s insecure. Angsty. Interrogative. That’s not the attitude of the next Sheila E. Those are the inner workings of someone without much of a clue. Someone who missed several key practices.

Here’s further information to consider: When Mary nods, she’s nodding the nod of new mothers. That encouraging nod of things hoped for and not yet seen. The nod through pretend smiles and gritted teeth. One day he’ll figure this thing out. One day the money for these lessons will pay off. Sure the ox and ass (or lamb depending on whether you want to dress your performers in adorable headgear) kept time, but it’s not like these two animals have been known for their epic sense of rhythm. No music teacher has ever said, “You’ll need to get Junior a metronome…or a donkey.” And Jesus does indeed smile. But remember, babies smile about all kinds of less-than-impressive performances. A raspberry sound from your lips. Making your face appear and disappear. Barney. Not exactly the equivalent of a John Bonham solo.

Plus, a far-from-perfect performance meshes so much better with the Christmas story. Now the Nativity isn’t as calamity-packed at The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but it certainly isn’t clean. And what could be more hope-filled than a mess? For the person who says the wrong thing at the office party, there’s the wisemen who accidentally tip-off the psychopath Herod about the baby. For the parents who use newspaper when the wrapping paper runs out, there’s Mary and Joseph putting Jesus in a hay-filled manger. For the newlywed spouses freaking out about spending time with their in-laws, there’s the shepherds who feel the sore-afraid feelings before any of the other feelings.

So when I see a school Christmas program, I don’t want to behold perfect rows of kids, precise timing, and crisply-delivered lines. I want to see children wandering around for their place on stage. I want to hear squishy Rs in need of speech therapy. I want to watch a struggling boy barely holding onto a drum, occasionally hitting the right beat, and joyfully smiling through all of it. I want a reminder that the Holiest of Holies came down to Earth, not to just clean up the mess, but to love it first.

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