Merry Christmas, Ms. Huey!

I am a sucker for children’s Christmas specials. The greatest of them all is, of course, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but I enjoy most of the stop-motion Rankin-Bass productions, too, although I’m unfortunately old enough to spot their silliness and nostalgic enough to wish I didn’t.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was on the other night, and as always, it reminded me of one of my favorite high school teachers, Ms. Huey. She taught biology and coached the quiz team at my school. I was only OK in biology, but I made the quiz team my senior year and we won the state championship, so I spent a lot of time in her company. It was a milestone for me when I learned that Teachers Could Be Interesting Too.

Ms. Huey listened to heavy metal, as we learned on quiz team road trips. We rode two hours each way in a van, listening to Black Sabbath or Judas Priest or, thankfully, Pink Floyd. She was married with a son a couple of years younger than us, but preferred to be called Ms., the first person I knew who made this distinction. And she absolutely loathed everything about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and his Christmas special.

“Look what it teaches you!” she would say, a head of steam invisibly boiling up behind her. “His own father’s ashamed of him for being different, the other reindeer are encouraged to make fun of him and leave him out of the ‘reindeer games'” — I should point out that she said all this with a perfectly straight face, no joking, no laughing, no expression besides scorn — “Even Santa Claus doesn’t want anything to do with him because of this one stupid little physical difference. What are kids supposed to learn from this? What would some poor child think, watching this, if he had a handicap of some kind?”

But they accept Rudolph in the end, someone always said, and we’d wait for her to take a deep breath and go on. We enjoyed every minute of this speech.

“Oh, sure they accept him when he’s useful to the rest of them. When he saves the day for Santa, he’s a hero, but the other 364 days of the year he’s a freak. Do you think the other reindeer appreciate him in the middle of July?”

What we loved about this, I understand in retrospect, was that we were all misfits ourselves. The quiz team had no glamor attached to it; it wasn’t as if we were the football team going to the playoffs, or the drama club putting on a show. We were six of the nerdiest kids in school — six Rudolphs, for God’s sake! — and even when we won, there was very little interest that followed us around. I will never again feel as alone as I did in high school, like the only person standing at the bottom of a chasm looking up. I wasn’t even going to be useful to the other kids, despite the fact that I was usually one of the quiz team’s stars. And Ms. Huey understood that. She’d been coaching the quiz team for a few years — she knew what a band of outsiders looked like. I’ve often wondered if she disliked the Rudolph special before she started working with nerds, or if hating the annual Christmas special was a consequence of coaching us.

I haven’t had anything to do with my high school in years. I correspond with one or two friends from back then by exchanging Christmas cards, and that’s pretty much the way I want it — there’s nothing in my life from those days that I want to hang onto, really. But once a year I find myself watching Rudolph, a healthy sense of irony behind my amused gaze at the TV set. It’s one of the few things I really learned in high school, and one of even fewer that I remember fondly.


14 Responses to “Merry Christmas, Ms. Huey!”

  1. Well, I would guess that Ms. Huey was probably a Rudolph, too.

    I watched Santa Claus Is Coming to Town last night.

  2. That one was always one of my favorites. Every song in it is an earworm, too.

  3. I so relate! I could have lived on Misfit Island, myself.

  4. I would’ve liked her.

  5. She made some good points. Makes one wonder how many kids watch Rudolph, and wish they had a glowing nose.

    I love to watch “The Grinch That Stole Christmas” and “A Christmas Carol” (the old one). Christmas doesn’t feel right without them.

  6. I have always hated Rudolph for ALL THOSE REASONS. Right on, Ms Huey! (insert power salute here)

    Miracle on 34th Street, here–the terrible remake from the 70’s, with the guy who played the butler in Family Affair as Nick.

  7. pandemonic Says:

    Bah humbug, I say…

  8. I’m a Grinch person too, Shawn. I finally found a decent version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” on iTunes.

  9. jojovtx1800 Says:

    I had the pleasure of sitting through all of “Rudolf” with my two-year-old, she cackled uncontrollably all the way through it. I often wondered about the message the show sends, only finding a place for him when useful. I was flawed, still am to a certain extent, maybe thats why I like feeling useful when I can.
    I like being needed, even if its only for a bit.

  10. I always felt bad for the toys on the Island of Misfit toys. When that part came on I would feel bad for all of my toys that I didn’t play with any longer or that I had broken throughout the year.

  11. thirdculturemom Says:

    Ms. Huey was right of course, but there are a lot of children’s stories, often the most heart-warming (or saccharine) ones, where such less than positive messages can be unearthed.

    Rudolph’s story is the misfit’s eternal fantasy: the “I’ll show them and then they’ll see how wrong they were about me” theme. In the end, it’s better to fantasize about being useful and saving everyone’s butts than some other way of “showing them”, I think….

  12. Quiz Club???

    Of course teachers can be cool and interesting! I’m glad you learned one of life’s most useful lessons in high school. Some people never learn that one, ever.

  13. Awesome post. I just emailed it to a friend.

  14. Ms. Huey was a woman of rare wisdom.

    The “Rudolph” special always upset me, though I could never articulate why, exactly. For stop-motion holiday fun, I much prefer “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It has a much better message, too.

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