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Walker goes caroling

When a woman who works for Larks approached the double doors at the front of the popular Ashland Springs Hotel restaurant Tuesday night and poked her head out to address the throng of carolers assembled on the sidewalk, most of the quote-unquote singers assumed they were about to get the old Yuletide hook.

That would have been an understandable, if not diplomatic response. The 40 or so faculty members, parents and children from Walker Elementary, enthusiastically participating in the school’s first caroling foray, had enough bundled up, shivering bodies to block a large portion of the view Larks customers expect, and for those with romantic notions it was a dreamy winter night in downtown Ashland, perfect for sharing a New York-style cheesecake and watching the Christmas lights sparkle.

But then something unexpected happened. The woman, possibly a member of the wait staff, directed the carolers to the Larks entrance, off to the left. It was an invitation to sing for the guests, inside.

“Really?” somebody asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

So Walker Elementary’s unofficial holiday street choir, which consisted of, among others, Principal Tiffany Burns and her family, first-grade teacher Kathleen Mateas, head custodian Lisa March, seventh/eighth grade math teacher Laurie Altinger and third-grade teacher Morgan Cottle, shuffled single file through Larks’ small waiting room and into the softly-lit, acoustically-frightening main dining area, where some two dozen patrons shifted in their seats and looked up expectantly.

Only 20 minutes prior the carolers had assembled in the Plaza, where Burns distributed to each willing caroler two stapled-together sheets consisting of the lyrics to six songs, all printed on Walker-blue paper. This, for Burns, represented a key upgrade in planning over her previous caroling experience.

“I went last year with a group of my friends and our kids, and we were bad,” she said, shaking her head. “We didn’t know the words, but it was a fantastic time. I printed it out this time. I absolutely learned from that mistake.”

To add a touch of uniformity, Burns also ordered a shipment of stocking caps — also Walker blue — which were available to anybody interested for the low, low price of $4. Burns purchased the caps out of pocket, a detail she expertly shushed once her husband, freelance writer Alec Dickinson, approached to within earshot.

Minutes before it was time to begin, a woman asked Burns if any more hats were available, to which she said yes, in her car, which was parked nearby.

“I’ll take one,” she said.

“You’re killin’ me!” Burns shouted over her shoulder as she jogged across the street.

“Ok, two.”

Since the whole thing was arranged on a whim by Burns and Mateas only two weeks ago, expectations were minimal. The goal, they said, was simply to get the Walker family together for a night of carefree fun.

“The game plan is, go to as many places as possible,” Mateas said.

Will carolers enter buildings, or just sing outside?

“If they invite us in, we’ll absolutely entertain,” Mateas said. “But I think the goal is just kind of walk the Plaza and sing together, just kind of create this sense of community.”

Mateas, 34, certainly held up her end of the bargain. A charismatic ninth-year teacher with an infectious laugh and bright smile, Mateas jump-started the carolers into most of the songs, pumping her fist on the beats and occasionally calling for a Walker Wolf howl, which was always answered with a hearty “Owwwwwww.”

The carolers worked their way south down Main Street then circled back, stopping to sing “Deck the Halls” in front of Macaroni’s, “Frosty the Snowman” in front of the Chamber of Commerce building and “Winter Wonderland” in front of Paddington Station. And, of course, the surprise invitation at Larks.

There, the carolers opened with “Jingle Bells” then closed with “Deck the Halls”, occasionally glancing at the printouts but mostly just winging it. As they belted it out, most of those in attendance either put down their forks and swayed back and forth or sang along.

The audience applauded after the final “fa la la la la, la la la la,” and the carolers exited. Mateas called out, “Happy holidays from Walker Elementary.”

The carolers gathered at the Plaza for one more song before dispersing, but instead of a Christmas carol they sang Walker’s school song, which ends like this:

“Howl Walker Wolves — owwwwww — we never feel alone/we love our den and all our friends/the wolfpack is our home. Howl Walker Wolves — owwwwww — we never feel alone/we love our den and all our friends/the wolfpack is our home.”

Walking away with her mom, Walker fourth-grader Claire Alexander was asked about the experience. Wasn’t it a little scary, singing in front of strangers? Did it make her nervous?

“No,” she said, “because I had my wolfpack.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.