The last Dent Christmas show
Robin laid an egg..."
If the Ghost of Christmas Past escorted you back to the Dent school in December of 1968; some freckle-faced, tooth-deprived, fidgety kid was singing that inane ditty.
The Ghost of Christmas Present overheard the same tune and lyrics on Dec. 18, 2008. It was in a Dent elementary classroom, as dozens of reved-up kids frolicked around impatiently, waiting to make their grand entrance to the annual Christmas program.
Like so many of our beloved Christmas carols, the smelly Batman version of "Jingle Bells" has become timeless--a true holiday classic, spanning the generations.
Another time-tested classic is the Dent elementary school Christmas program, which probably dates to 1906, when Miss Suzie Vogel taught 60 kids in a tar paper shack. There is no written evidence as to whether or not Miss Vogel presented a holiday program, but it is safe to bet that she did--with Dent children singing songs about the baby Jesus, the three wisemen and angels on high.
Those Christian characters have long since been banished from the public schools. And now, the Christmas program is gone altogether in Dent.
A crowd of 200 filled the gymnasium for the final school program. No more little voices singing songs of the season. No more cafeteria Christmas cookies. No more handmade Santa art gracing sturdy brick and tile walls.
Next year, there will no longer be a Dent elementary school.
"It's the end of an era for small schools..we were one of the last ones still standing," lamented Rex Kingsbury, teacher and one-time principal of the Dent school. "Our school has a great community feel to it, and that will continue right to the end."
"It makes me sad," said Leanne Stoll, mother of four. Her fourth grader will be transferred into Perham next year. "The school has such a close, family feeling...I'm sure I'll shed a tear--I do at every Christmas program."
On this day, December 18, 2008, the dizzying whirl of excitable youngsters resembled a mass outbreak of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. On this same day 40 years ago, there was no such thing as ADHD. Back then, the most rambunctious of the youngsters (rowdy little boys with clip-on neckties and bowties, mostly) probably received a swat on their butts if they didn't control themselves while the teacher attached construction paper-created reindeer antlers to their closely-cropped heads.
Treating holiday-induced ADHD in the mid-1960's was swift, effective and inexpensive--with fewer side effects than modern medication.
"Sit still here, you need something to make your cheeks rosy," said Mary Stoll, a Dent school teaching aide who was the make-up artist who herded up first and second graders in the backstage classroom.
Surprises are to be expected at Christmas programs. "With little kids, you never know what might happen," said Stoll.
And that includes the girls. You never know when a first-grader in a festive, frilly, red and white holiday dress might decide to pull it over her head, said Dent teacher Michelle Bormann.
One time, the music stopped midway through the program. Another time, stage fright, evidently, caused one kid to vomit.
"A student fainted--twice--and fell off the back of the risers," recalled Bormann.
"I've seen a lot of programs over the years," said Mary Stoll, who herself had five kids go through the Dent school. "In fact, our oldest son played the role of the Nutcracker."
Just how many Stolls have performed in Dent Christmas-time?
Loaded question. Too much information. Too much data. Too much math. In Dent, too many Stolls--too little time. The world may never know.
"Well, let's see, there would be Louie's kids, and their kids...," said Mary Stoll. "...Of course, Gene's kids, and Gene's kids' kids, and there's a bunch of them...There are at least three generations."
"And back then, there was no such thing as a family with only one kid...That's the big change," she added. This is the main reason Dent is closing: Too few farm families with lots of kids, unlike even one generation ago.
There has been one constant for the past dozen Dent Christmas programs. Teacher Kingsbury has always written and orchestrated his own program. No store-bought, off-the-shelf program for Kingsbury.
This year's creation, "Reindeer on Strike," featured a cast of rebellious reindeer--threatening a work shut-down, unless Santa and the elves showed them more respect.
"Every Christmas program I've done, I've written. I like to be creative," he said, adding with a smile, "I think I've got a few childrens' books in me, too."
Like usual at the Dent program, there were elbow-to-elbow Honers bumping into each other as the crowd made an orderly stampede to the Christmas cookie line.
There was John Honer, who attended Dent school back about three decades ago or more. He never got a starring role as an elf or a reindeer in the Christmas program, but by all appearances, such deprivation didn't result in any lifelong psychological damage.
"I was just one of the singers," he said, about performing as one of dozens of "extras" on the Dent stage.
"I've gone to Dent Christmas programs forever; they were always so great," lamented Barb Honer, a grandmother of 12--most of them Dent alumni. "Even during those years when we didn't have kids or grandkids in the program, we would attend it anyway. It gets you in the Christmas spirit."
Bud Honer, Barb's husband, is a Dent graduate--back in the 1940's, when there were eight grades in Dent.
As far as we know, there was only one break in the string of Dent school holiday programs.
"Children and parents were anxious to have a Christmas program in 1963, presuming the new auditorium would be finished on schedule. Programs had been discontinued for the two previous years because of limited space," states the 2004 Dent Centennial book. "The choirs arrived and the Christmas program was presented to a full house the following day."
That first holiday program was 45 years ago--almost to the day--of the final Dent school program.
Dentsters have always loved their hometown school. So much so that in 1962, the citizens approved $155,000 in bonding to construct a new school--by an overwhelming 257-11 vote.
Times have changed. Perham-Dent voters voted a landslide 4,054 to 1,911 to defeat a tax increase levy to generate more money for school operations. Even if the 2008 referendum had passed, it wouldn't have mattered for Dent elementary, which was already slated to close after the 2008-09 school year.
"We've always looked forward to the Christmas programs," said Bud Honer. "There was never a bad one!"
Writing in the Dent 2004 Centennial book, retired Dent teacher Ray Kaluza remembered "all the wonderful Christmas plays and musicals performed on that stage and the packed gym with grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors and parents! It is a Dent tradition which I hope will continue for many years!"
Bundling up her kids Andrew, who was a reindeer, and Shelby, an elf, after their final Dent performance, Tanya (Wegscheid) Schlosser said that, with the loss of the Christmas program, "I felt like somebody in my family had died."
"This is really sad; we fought so long and so hard to keep going," said Berniece Genoch, who started her kids at the Dent school in 1972, and now has grandchildren in the school. "The teachers and the staff have been fantastic. We've been so fortunate."
"There just aren't enough kids for a school here," said Tom Johnson, with three kids who were Dent alumni. "But, we did what we did for as long as we could."
"The school building will close, but the most important part of a school is the kids," said Kingsbury. "And those great kids are still here--they'll just be in a different environment."
If you followed the Ghost of Christmas Past back a few decades, you would see and hear all sorts of Christian elements at the Dent Christmas program. Most years, the flock of angels included a Stoll; maybe a Fresonke, Kratzke, a Sazama, Garber, or a Harthun; and usually, a Honer or two.
"There were always lots and lots of angels in the program," reminisced Barb Honer.
Just as those angels who once fluttered about the Dent gymnasium's stage have vanished, so now has the school's Christmas program.
The Ghost of Christmas Future paid a visit to Dent school last week. He was probably lurking in the shadows of the boiler room. Thank God nobody saw him, especially all those Dent youngsters, because he's the scary Christmas ghost--the silent, freakishly-tall, Grim Reaper guy with the scythe over his shoulder; the ghost who foretells gloom and doom of days yet to come.
The Ghost of Yuletide Future has since left the building; and with him went the Dent school Christmas program.