When I was 15, my Grandma Joe cried as she read this story from the newspaper to me and my brothers and sisters. Seeing the story touch her helped it touch me. “I am a poor boy too” has been my favorite line from The Little Drummer Boy ever since.
“Come, they told me…dum-ditty-dum-dum…” I stopped the chorus of 4-year-olds midstream in the song and looked directly at Eric.
“Eric, this song is called ‘The Little Drummer Boy’,” I spoke sternly, “and the words are ‘Come they told me, pa-rump-a-pum-pum,’ not ‘dum-ditty-dum-dum.’ And, Eric, you don’t need to yell it. We can hear you above everyone else, just sing, Eric. You know, sing!”
“Eric, Eric, Eric…” I muttered under my breath as I walked back to my music stand, “…Eric, Eric, Eric.”
Eric had two speeds: on and off. I never saw off. I imagine “off” happened for Eric sometime between 1 and 3 a.m. (That is, on a good night). This little, shiny-faced wisp of a boy had more unspent, undirected energy than any child I had ever met. He simply could not hold still. He shifted, he twitched, he giggled, he yawned, and when he sang, he yelled.
He smelled of soap and Brylcreem and clothes that had been hung outside on the line to dry. Two yellow-striped T-shirts, faded and frayed at the neck, a pair of black jeans and a red-hooded sweatshirt constituted his entire school wardrobe. But his clothes were always clean. His shirts were worn one day, washed the next. His jeans were worn all week, but they were always clean and creased on Monday morning when Eric arrived on the bus from the other side of town. Monday mornings at our public preschool always found Eric scrubbed, spit-polished and ready for action. This little boy was obviously loved.
And I must admit, there was a lot of Eric that was lovable. Through all his perpetual motion, he smiled. In fact, he never quit smiling. His face carried a non-stop, tooth-filled grin. And when Eric’s grin caught you head on, it was impossible to stay angry at him.
Three times a week, on the front row of my preschool, there stood Eric, grinning and yelling; although in all fairness to him, he thought he was singing. It’s just that Eric loved to sing, and he belted out those Christmas songs, through that grin, as though his life depended on it. He raised the roof, if not our spirits. There were, however, a couple of problems with that: 1. Eric was in a group of six children bussed from the other side of town in an effort to achieve racial equality. His enthusiasm alone made him the uncontested “star” of the chorus. Some of the mothers were not too fond of Eric, one of those “other” children, stealing the show. 2. Eric could never remember the words. His enthusiasm also made him a natural leader, and soon the whole chorus was singing, “Come they told me dum-ditty-dum-dum…” and then pealing off into uncontrolled laughter.
I was trying to work on both problems. I sent the words to the song home with Eric to memorize. And some of the mothers were making stiff, white collars with big red bows so this chorus of middle-class children sprinkled with the “rag-tag bunch” (as one mother called them) would look unified even if they didn’t sound like it.
The final rehearsal went well until we got to “The Little Drummer Boy.” “Come they told me…” was followed by silence, confusion, hesitation. The piano went on with the melody, but the little 4-year-olds were so confused with hum and dum and pum that they simply froze. All except Eric. “Dum-ditty-dum-dum…” he finished the phrase.
“That’s it!” I raised my voice and stopped the chorus, “We are not singing about the seven dwarves here! This is a Christmas song, a very special Christmas song about a little boy just like you – except he lived long ago at the time when Baby Jesus was born. He was very poor and young, but he wanted more than anything to visit the newborn baby in the manger. When he got there, he saw Kings and wise men and people like that waiting to see the Baby Jesus. They all had expensive gifts to give the Christ Child. Things like gold and jewels and perfume.
“Well, when the little boy saw all those fancy people, with all their fancy gifts, he just about turned around and went home. I mean, he was just a little kid – a poor little kid at that, with nothing to give. About the only thing he could do at all was play his drum. But then he looked around and realized that the Baby Jesus was poor, too, that He was born in a stable (that’s like a barn where they kept the animals), not in some fancy place.
“So, when it was the little boy’s turn to see Jesus, he asked Mary, Baby Jesus’ mother, if he could play his drum for the baby, and she said, ‘Yes’. Well, everyone loved it, and the little boy learned that the best gift you can give is the gift of yourself!” I finished the story, satisfied that the children understood it, and went on, “when we sing the song, we are making the sound of the little boy’s drum. It is a ‘p’ sound. Everybody say it with me, ‘p,’ ‘p,’ ‘pum’. Now everybody say ‘pum’ twenty times: ‘pum, pum, pum, pum.'”
The chorus repeated the words. I looked at the clock. I had taken too long telling the story of the Little Drummer Boy. Our rehearsal time was gone. “OK, children,” I finished up, “there is no more time to practice this song, but you have to remember the drum makes a ‘p’ sound: ‘pum’ ‘pum’ ‘pum’. Have you got it?” “Yes,” they all nodded, and ran off to lunch, “pumming” all the way.
I walked back to their classroom teacher, who was sitting on a chair at the rear of the auditorium, watching the whole rehearsal. “Tell me about Eric,” I asked and, discouraged, sat down beside her. “Well, there isn’t a lot to tell,” she said. “As far as we know he is an only child being raised by his grandmother. We’ve never met her. Eric told us she didn’t want to come to back-to-school night because she was afraid someone would find out she couldn’t read. Apparently, his grandmother is an illiterate black woman who stands in the shadows; and as best she can on a welfare check, loves and cares for the little boy.” The teacher stood up. “I’d better check on the children,” she finished. “Good luck, Debbi. Thanks for all your help with the chorus.”
I went back to the office to look up Eric’s records. He lived alone with this paternal grandmother. There was an address, but no phone number. I wrote a special note inviting her to the program and sent it home with Eric – pinned to his shirt so she would be sure to see it. Surely, if his grandmother couldn’t read the note, she knew someone who could read it to her.
The day of the program arrived. The auditorium filled with parents, armed with cameras and video recorders. I stood out in the hall with my preschool chorus. Eric had on a new white dress shirt that he wanted to show me. He was higher than a kite. The whole chorus was excited, wiggling even more than usual. The stiff white collars were driving them crazy. I barked out some last-minute instructions: they were not to touch those collars while they were singing, even if they were itching to death. With that said, we all marched onto the stage.
The children went though the songs without a hitch: Jingle Bells, A Silent Night, Away in a Manger. This little crew looked and sounded for all the world like a chorus of angels. It’s amazing what white collars and a touch of the Christmas spirit can do.
I turned the music on my stand to “The Little Drummer Boy,” signaled the pianist to begin and made the “pum” sound with my lips to the children as the introduction was playing. “Come they told me…” they started right on cue. “Pum-ditty-pum-pum…” They hesitated for just a moment before joining Eric. There was no stopping them now. “I am a poor boy, too…” Eric’s voice soared above the others, “pum-ditty-pum-pum…”
How could I have forgotten the “rum-pump-o-pump-pum” part when I talked to them yesterday? I could hear people in the audience snickering. “Mary nodded…pum-ditty-pum-pum.” By now, there were only about three children singing with Eric. The noise from the audience had scared the others.
What was I thinking? The song was way too hard for a group of 4-year-olds. The children were frozen and embarrassed, and so was I. We all wanted to crawl off stage, all except for Eric.
“The ox and lambs kept time,” he yelled, “pum-ditty-pum-pum.” And he grinned and continued. “I played my best for Him, pum-ditty-pum-pum.” By now, Eric was singing a solo. “I played my best for Him.” He didn?t even notice no one else was singing. “Pum-ditty-pum-pum-ditty-pum-pum-ditty-pum-pum…” Eric’s “pum-dittys” were bouncing all around the auditorium. The laughter in the audience was now uncontrollable.
Finally, I mean finally, the song ended, and a bunch of bewildered 4-year-olds bowed and got off the stage as fast as possible and totally out of order. Before I could get out of the school, the hallway was filled with parents, white collars and children. Leading the pack was Eric, pulling a short, gray-haired woman by the hand.
“Mrs. Smoot, Mrs. Smoot.” Eric made a beeline for me. “Mrs. Smoot, this is my grandma.” He dragged her up to my side and grinned. “She rode the bus all the way up here to see the program.” He was obviously pleased that she had made the trip. “She wants to tell you thanks,” he continued in his yelling, Eric voice.
I turned to his grandmother and started to speak. “Well, I’m very happy to meet you. Eric is…” There was a vacant stare in her bright eyes. I noticed large hearing aids in both her ears. She smiled, obviously confused. “She says she’s happy to meet you, too,” Eric blurted out. He was acting as a translator for his grandmother, whom I now realized was almost totally deaf.
“Boy, isn’t Christmas great, Mrs. Smoot?” Eric said, “sorry I sang so loud, Mrs. Smoot, but that Little Drummer Boy is such a great story, I wanted my grandma to hear it!”
Eric’s grandmother could not hear a word we were saying but standing there silently in a purple-flowered dress she could see Eric’s excitement and his love of the music. She looked at me for a moment, her eyes tear-filled, and spontaneously reached up to hug me. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Oh, no. Thank you,” I said back as I looked in her eyes, “thank you for Eric.” I embraced her again. She then tenderly removed Eric’s stiff white collar, handed it to me, took her little grandson’s hand, and I watched them walk together down the hall, Eric bouncing at her side and singing, “pum-ditty-pum-pum” all the way out the door.
I never hear the song about the Little Drummer Boy at Christmas without remembering Eric and his gift to his grandmother and, without remembering the look in his grandmother’s eyes as she took Eric’s hand, her gift of unconditional love to him. I never read the story of the Little Drummer Boy without recalling the miracle that must have happened that night in the manger, of God’s greatest gift of all – his love.
And every time I have the chance to sing this beloved carol as part of a church or community choir, though I don’t sing it out loud, in my heart the words will always be “dum-ditty-dum-dum….”
Written by Debbi Smoot for the Deseret News “Christmas I Remember Best” contest, December 21, 1988.