Wednesday, December 17, 2008
December Stories and Songs, Part 17
It's that time of year when, in some schools, students give their teachers presents. So for today, I've chosen a little more "grown-up" story, The Night of the Magi by Leo Rosten, from The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N. In researching and looking for links, I discovered that I used an apparently later version (from an anthology) of the chapter Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N and the Magi; and that the book was originally published under one of Rosten's pseudonyms, Leonard Q. Ross.
The book, a classic of American humor, details the experiences of Mr. Parkhill, who teaches an evening class in English to a group of Jewish and Italian immigrants in New York City sometime in the early 20th century. Rosten (also author of The Joys of Yiddish) had the ability to laugh at the fractured English of his characters while loving their enthusiasm, determination and vision of the American Dream. (H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, by the way, is the class leader and occasionally a sore trial to Mr. Parkhill; he always writes his name in all caps with asterisks between each letter. I have a feeling he went on to have a building named after him at my alma mater).
In this story, Mr. Parkhill knows that the air of suppressed excitement in his class, and the absence of a few key members, means that they are planning his Christmas gift. While giving the class a spelling lesson, he reminisces about past gifts and conjectures what wildly inappropriate present he'll get this year. In the end, he realizes that is is, really, the thought that counts; and that perhaps his "worst" pupil has taught him something.
Since this is such an urban story, for the song to go with it I chose Silver Bells, by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. It was introduced by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the film The Lemon-Drop Kid, which was based on a story by Damon Runyon, and you can hear and see that clip here. National Public Radio did a piece on the song's history a few years back, and you can still listen to that here. But for one of my favorite versions, you'll have to get the one from The Roches' album We Three Kings. These three New Jersey sisters really catch the spirit with their unique harmonies. Then again, Johnny Mathis was what I grew up with, and he did a great job too.
Silver Bells, by the way, is probably Onkel Hankie Pants' and my favorite secular Christmas song; so much so, that when OHP wanted to write a sung grace for special meals, he set his words to that tune. You can see them here. Be sure to let him know if you decide to sing them at your special meal!