Note: Each year in our closing assembly, a few teachers are asked to share favorite holiday memories. It was my turn this year and I shared the following. I post it here because I think it gives an insight into middle school kids not frequently seen.
To teach is to open your heart and your soul. You teach because you hope to give a gift to your students. That means being open to great joy and fulfillment. It can also mean being vulnerable to disappointment and even hurt. Some years are good and some years bring struggles. In a school the focus is on the students. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about the teachers. But it might surprise you to know just how human teachers are (of course, it’s the same for parents). If I could, I’d like to speak for a moment as a human and not a teacher.
I had a difficult year once. It left me feeling sad, and more than a little down. I started the next year feeling a bit bruised, but life goes on.
Some people might question whether it is a wise career choice to enter a field where professional success is determined by your ability to coax adolescents into singing. With their changing voices, self-consciousness, and all the various social dilemmas they face, singing can be a challenge.
Every year, I try to pick songs that will be fun, educational, and also reasonably d0-able, considering the vocal and social complexities endured by my middle school possums. And every year after concerts, I hear people say, ‘That was fun.” Or, “I can tell you worked really hard.”
I understand what they’re saying, and I appreciate the kindness. We strive for a high level but often fall short. I do believe there’s value in the effort, the striving, and the work. So, in the end, we do the best we can.
Each year, twice a year, we sing, and at the end, I put on a smile, turn around and face the audience, acknowledging their applause but wishing the performance could have been higher-quality. That's life as a middle school choir director.
Deep down, though, I really want to sound good. Each year I sneak a wish that at least one song that will be beautiful on it’s own merits, not on a sliding scale, not with all things considered and so on. I want a song that sounds good so that when I turn around to acknowledge the audience’s applause, I can smile back and think, “Yeah, this one was really good.”
Now, going back to my story: coming after a rough previous year, I really wanted a good song more than ever. As a human, perhaps I needed it.
I chose one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. The song I think is the perfect holiday song: “White Christmas.” Written by a Jewish immigrant from Russia, the song became popular during WWII as soliders longed for their families. The song is beautiful on so many levels and for years I’ve wanted one of my classes to sing it and do a really good job. I found a lovely arrangement and have tried it over the years several times. Each time it was pretty good—but never quite all I had hoped.
But the year I'm speaking of, my students worked so hard. They practiced and practiced, spending entire class periods trying to master a single phrase or chord.
A few weeks before the concert, I explained how much it meant to me and told them that the thing I most wanted for Christmas was to have my one song—that really good song that would allow me to turn around and face their parents with a real smile on my face.
The concert came and I was nervous. We sang our first song. And it went pretty well. And our second song was even better. And then it was time for our last song: “White Christmas.”
As we started I could tell they were trying. They were really trying. It occurred to me that many of them were sincerely trying to give me this gift. I don't think they understood all it meant, but they understood it was important to me. That really touched me and the notes on my music got a bit blurry.
The song started beautifully. They did a lovely job. It got better and better as it went on. They followed the cues for the dynamics. The balance seemed good. We hit the high point, “May your days be merry and bright,” pausing at a fermata after a lovely crescendo, and I heard a distinct chord! Three parts being sung in balance and tune! I heard the descending notes from the boys, the resolving chords from the altos, and the beautiful, pure simplicity of the sopranos on the melody.
It ended. I turned around to face the audience with the smile. “Yeah,” I thought. “You should clap. That was really good.”
That was the year I got my song. I got my Christmas present, and a favorite Christmas memory. And I want to thank the Class of 2013 for making it happen last night at our concert.
Update: That is what I read in assembly this morning, and that was followed by my students singing again. Having heard this account, they seemed to have an idea of what it meant to me and if anything, their performance was even better. I hesitate to say “perfect,” but that’s not too far off.
I will relive this memory many times in my mind. Probably when I'm old and decrepit, I will still be remembering the sounds and how it felt.
And then after they made me choke up, with their performance, as well as their kindness, several of them ran up and surprised me with hugs. I don’t normally do hugs with students, but in this context, it really touched me.
I won’t be trying “White Christmas” with future groups. I’m retiring the number, so to speak, because I’ve now heard the definitive version in my mind.
I wanted to teach because I hoped to give my students gifts. But last night, I was the one who received.
Welcome to Day 4 of the 1st Annual Christmas Song Trivia Contest!
For more details, you can check here. Essentially, leaving a comment and answering this question will get you one entry in the contest. Grand prize is a ten dollar iTunes gift card . There are some additional great prizes as well. You may use any source for answers you like. Leave your answer in a comment below. You may enter every day of the contest. Also, click here for ways to get additional entries.
Yesterday's answer: There are actually two correct answers. The lyrics were changed the first time during the shooting of the film. Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, as well as Garland's co-star, Tom Drake all felt they were to depressing. Then, years later, Frank Sinatra recorded the song for one of his albums and felt they were still a little depressing, so they were changed once more. In case you are interested, I put the original lyrics below today's song.
Today's question: Rudolph came to life as a promotional tool for what retailer?
The original lyrics to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" were:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Frank Sinatra recorded his version, the two lines in the last verse were changed to, "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough..." (Source: Wikipedia)
Last night I was working late doing some editing on the sequel for The Kindling. I was stretched out on the couch by the tree and the whole scene was so cozy I thought I'd pass it along. You can see the tree and then the Christmas village on the piano across the room underneath our beloved Currier and Ives prints.
Note: I have posted this for a year or two in various forms. I worry about it a bit because I don't want to seem self serving. But, I usually get a lot of good feedback, so I will post it for whatever it is worth.
What a wonderful time of year! A big part of this season, of course, is the giving of gifts. And, with that comes wondering and worrying about what to give to various people in your life. Your husband, wife, boss, neighbors, and your child's teacher.
I can't help you with the others, but I can give you some tips on what to give your child's teacher. I have some expertise in this since I am a teacher, so I have my own experience as well as hearing the reactions of all my colleagues over the years. So, based on that, let me give you some thoughts.
You are certainly not obligated to give a gift. If you want to--I think that's great. If you don't want to, can't, whatever, that's fine, too.
Personally, I always make sure we give our children's teachers something. It's always very modest, but I think it's important.
Here's why: I can't overstate how demanding and exhausting teaching is. Wonderful and rewarding, yes--but also exhausting. It's very much like being a parent--a constant flow of giving, giving, giving. You give emotionally and mentally and you risk emptying the well sometimes.
Having someone give back using the same currency (eg emotional and mental) really helps fill the well back up.
DO NOT feel obligated to spend a lot of money, especially in this economy. In fact, you can spend no money and give an incredibly memorable gift (see below).
DO acknowledge the fact that your child's teacher does a great deal. Yes, he or she is paid. However, a good teacher is simply not compensated anywhere near the amount of time he or she invests and is not paid for any of the emotional energy given.
One of the most valued gifts I know of is a sincere note written by a child that is detailed and specific in expressing gratitude. These are treasured. I'm serious. It's also wonderful to get these from parents. Most teachers teach to make a difference and most worry, I think, that they aren't doing enough, or well enough or could do more or need to do better. Knowing you are achieving that objective is powerful medicine. If your child is problematic in class, I would especially encourage you to do something. I have a folder in which I keep these sort of notes and in a fire, it's one of the first things I would grab.
If your child has multiple teachers, DO NOT give a gift to one teacher and not another. Someone does this every year and it can really hurt people's feelings. Remember that teachers are human with feelings. If you must do this, and I can see why there would be occasions to do it, at least give the gift discretely so no one else will see.
DO think of those who will be left out. Every school has a few popular teachers that everyone loves. They get tons of stuff. But the less popular teachers work hard, too. It's not their fault they are not as charismatic, etc. Be thoughtful. You might also consider the custodial staff, etc. A plate of cookies for them would be very thoughtful. I realize you can't necessarily get something for everyone--but just There is a parent at our school who remembers the lunch laides and custodians every year. Every year. I think that shows a lot about her.
DO NOT feel pressure to be creative or clever. If you don't want to follow my advice and do a nice note then it truly is the thought that counts for most teachers. A list of my favorite gifts over the years would reveal no pattern beyond thoughtfulness.
If you are super busy and want a quick idea, go for a gift card. Teachers don't often have vast amounts of of disposable income and having a gift card to Target or Wal-Mart or a restaurant, even in a modest amount, makes me feel rich and give me a chance to buy something fun for myself or my wife without having to worry about budgetary impact.
If you want to do something more personal, then you have a little more work to do. Finding out their favorite restaurant, spa, etc. is also a good idea. One year, one student got some movie passes for us since there was a movie they knew we wanted to watch and knew it would be expensive for our big family. The kindness and thoughtfulness in that gesutre still warm my heart beyond the value of the gift. Another family gave me some really amazing, high-end toffee and candy one year and some homemade treats the next year. Some families have special recipes for hot cocoa or cookie mixes--the list goes on and on, but all of this warms my heart to equal degrees because I know they spend time and effort--which is what I've tried to do for their children.
Another idea is a Christmas tree ornament. Over the years I have received several of these. I always write the student's name and year on it, and each year, as we decorate our tree, I have warm and happy memories of that family.
You might also consider group gifts. One year, the parents in my son's class all contributed a few dollars and got her a gift card to the mall. Then, everyone had their child draw a picture and write what they loved about the teacher. We laminated these and made them into a book. I know she really loved that gift.
I'm telling you, you do not have to spend lots of money. It truly is the thought that counts. If your child attends a public school, there might be instructional or classroom supplies your teacher would love that are not in his or her budget. Talking to the room parents or the teacher is a good idea there.
One last idea:
May I suggest that, along with the gift, you tell them explicitly that you do not want them to write you a thank you note? This is one of the most thoughtful things I've experienced from parents. I am, of course, happy to write thank you notes, but when someone tells me not to worry about it, it is a true gift, saving time and some money. I know a lot of teachers who spend a fair amount of time over the break writing thank you notes and then spend a bit of money mailing the notes (one doesn't always want to trust the child to deliver it).
Two years ago, I did this with my own children's teachers and some of them literally burst into tears out of gratitude. So, I feel like I'm really on to something here. Some may write a note anyway and feel that this is important modelling for the student to see. I do understand that point of view. My own thought, for what it's worth, is that things revolve around the student all year long. The point of giving a gift is to say thank you to the teacher--not to teach the student something else.
But, this is just a thought.
Note: All of my current students and parents who I know read this blog do a great job at this! I wouldn't have posted this otherwise.
I hope everyone had a happy and serene Thanksgiving. If you have had the patience to stick around this blog for a year or more, you'll know that Christmas is A. Big. Deal. here at bradenbell.com. At our vast corporate headquarters, the maintenance staff has been working around the clock to get the building decorated. The marketing department is having a Christmas trivia with the legal offices, the tech support folks are wearing Santa hats to work, we have days where everyone wears their pajamas, eats sugar cookies, and drinks egg nog is on tap in the employee lounge.
Of course, as a believing Christian, Christmas is the birthday of my King, something I enjoy for profound reasons that go as deep as my soul. But, I also just love it all! The fun, the music, the decorations, the food--you name it. It's just a wonderful time of year and I like to celebrate that. So, throughout the month, I'll be posting some of my favorite music or movie suggestions and so on.
Last night, the denizens of Mockingbird Cottage hopped in the car and went and got our tree. After letting the branches fall overnight, we put the lights and decorations on it this evening. We have our favorite Christmas candle burning (Yankee Candle Bayberry. Seriously. It's what Christmas smells like), the nativity sets are up, the stockings are hung--it's time to make merry!
Tonight, since it is Sunday, I thought I'd start out with one of my all-time favorites. Besides being a beautiful song, there is a fascinating human story behind this oratorio. I'll write more about it later. For now, just enjoy the magnificence of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."
I hope you had a warm and wonderful holiday. We here at bradenbell.com had a delightful and truly blessed holiday--filled with all the joys of the season: faith, family, friends, and fun. It occurs to me that we can perhaps learn much about the nature of God from Christmas. Only a truly loving, deeply good, and abundantly generous God could inspire so many people to be so happy for his birthday--and that happiness is available to everyone, whether they believe or not. It is striking--and instructive--to me that during this time more people follow more closely the example and teachings the Babe of Bethlehem would grow to give, and that they do this without necessarily trying to. It seems to flow much more naturally.
I'm sobered by the tragedies in other parts of the world, where Christians were not able to safely go to church to worship the birth of their Lord, or, where they did go and gave their lives for it.
In times past (and currently, in some places and traditions) the Western world observed twelve days of Christmas. These twelve days came after, not leading up to, Christmas day, culminating with Twelfth Night--which was the traditional time that the Wise Men were believed to have come to see the Baby Jesus. In this paradigm, Christmas Day is the beginning, not the culmination of the celebration of Christ's birth. This is the day of the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation or manifestation of Jesus to the world.
I find this a congenial pattern for my own internal observance of Christmas. I love the music and lights, the parties and presents, Santa, Rudolph, and all the merriment that comes with a hearty celebration of Christmas. But I also value quiet introspection and devotion. Thus, I try to celebrate the birth of my Lord while also worshipping him.
Perhaps this is trying to have my cake while eating it, too--but I enjoy the fun and excitement, the recreational aspects of the holiday up until Christmas Day. Then, I shift and in those wonderful quiet, still days between Christmas and New Year, I become introspective and worshipful. For this reason, I've never felt a conflict between the secular and sacred aspects of the holiday.
During this time, I take a long inventory of myself from the previous year. I try to identify the areas, large and small, where my actions have fallen short of the Man from Galilee. I examine the gap between what he taught and what I have done, between his perfect example and my very flawed execution. This is a solemn time for me--introspection is not easy, and it is certainly not pleasant to look at one's shortcomings.
But once I am focused on my failings, the sins of omission and commission, then comes the sweet gift of Divine Grace! And I savor the healing, empowering, redeeming love that took human form in that manger. In other words, I experience my own Epiphany.
Having gone through this process, I am excited to start the New Year, focused on what I can do to be a better man, to be a better father and husband, a better teacher, a better friend, and a better disciple of Jesus Christ.
As part of my personal celebration each year, I usually read George Eliot's Silas Marner. Short and easy to read, it's the tale of a miserly weaver who changes. Life experience, love, and God's grace combine to turn him into a new creature. To me, this is the practical meaning of Christmas, and it is the way I feel closest to my Savior.
Joyeux Noel! Buon Natale! Feliz Navidad! Gloria in excelsis Deo! Joy to the World. Merry Christmas, my friends. I hope you are in peace and comfort and surrounded by friends and family.
This is my favorite night of the entire year as I feel the peace of the Savior descend into my heart and can easily imagine "angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold."
If you have a minute, I think this video clip will be worth your time. It's my hero, Jimmy Stewart, in a Christmas movie made by my Church many years ago. He plays a lonely old widower, a custodian in an apartment building alone on Christmas eve. It brings tears to my eyes every year and I cry like a child.
I'm putting the clip below, but if you want to watch the movie in it's entirety (about 30 minutes) go here, here, and here.
*This is a post I've published for the last several years. I hope you enjoy it. I post it every year as part of my remembering something special in our family's experience.
I'm 40 years old and I believe in Santa Claus. I really do. Let me tell you why--and then maybe you will also.
I didn't always believe in him. In fact, while I was growing up, I didn't believe in him. My sweet mom really wanted the focus to be on Baby Jesus (and rightly so), consequently Santa just wasn't a big part of our celebrations.
I was never anti-Santa, I thought he seemed harmless enough, but he just didn't play much of a role in my life. Until I was married with children.
A lot of you know the first part of the story. While on a mission for my church, I became quite ill. I managed to struggle along through the complete two years, but I came home severely weakened and exhausted.
Still, I fell in love, got married and we started our family. Then I relapsed and the sickness came back with a vengeance. Those years are a blur for me. For basically three years I could do nothing but lay in my bed and sleep. On good days I was able to watch a little TV. I had to drop out of school and it was impossible to work. My poor wife was essentially a single mother of two little boys--in addition to taking care of a sick husband. It was terribly, incredibly, perpetually bleak during those years. There was not much to cheer us as we trudged through the soul-numbing bleakness that was always there.
Eventually, miraculously, I was healed. But after three years, we were in a pretty deep hole--financially and emotionally.
Christmas came the next year. We were grateful that I wasn't sick any more, but there were residual effects. I was way behind in school, we had no money, and Christmas was going to be fairly sparse for our kids--and now there were three of them. That was okay. We weren't miserable or anything--but it wasn't exactly terribly festive, either.
Then, one night we heard a noise outside. Someone left a beautiful artificial Christmas tree on our doorstep. That was followed by decorations and some other things. That really brightened our holiday.
Then, several nights before Christmas, we heard the distinct sound of bells outside. I opened the door and went to see what it was. I opened the door and Santa Claus walked in.
I'm not joking. Just like that. He brought in several laundry baskets full of gifts, all wrapped beautifully. The new tree, by the way, is in the background. There were lots of gifts for all of us--things we wanted, things we needed, and everything was in the right sizes, too.
Of course, the gifts were nice—wonderful, in fact--but the greater gift was the way our hearts were lifted up and the love that was so clearly manifest. To this day, we aren't sure who was behind this. We racked our brains and went over every possibility. But we never found out. And they made that Christmas for us. We remember--and relive this--every year.
I realized eventually that we didn't need to know. Santa Claus was behind it. He was responsible. That was when Santa became real to me. And who or what is Santa? I believe that he is the embodiment of the kindness we show each other. He is the name we give to the urge to do something nice for someone else. He is the incarnation of all the good will that we feel during this time of the year.
At this time of year, we celebrate miracles—the miracle of a lamp that burned for eight nights in a time of darkness, and the miracle of a baby in a manger. But as we celebrate these miracles, there is another miracle I love to think about: the miracle of human kindness—the miracle that happens when we reach out and show love and concern to those around us. And when we do, we embody the spirit of miracles. And to me, that is who Santa is—the symbol of our best intentions and kindest actions. And that is why I believe Santa is real. That is why I know Santa is real. I met him many years ago on a cold night in a small apartment in Provo UT.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
And now for something a bit different. One of our family's favorite Christmas songs is from a Curious George Christmas special. Yes, I know. However, we heard this song when we had a new four-year old who was in a cute-monkey-like phase. Christmas was magical to him--and for all of us through his eyes. He was a big Curious George fan and that's how we came across this song. So, it brings back happy memories. Enjoy!
And one more. Just because we are on the safari/jungle animal/Christmas theme. This song is for Rob McKenzie. "I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas."
I'm curled up by my tree right now, listening to Mannheim Steamroller. I just finished reading some passages from the New Testament. I feel close to a loving God, aware of his blessings and grace in my life. The sounds of children are filling our house--all of them are home with us after a semester of separation. Scented Christmas candles are burning, and those smells mix with the Christmas cookies baking to create a very pleasant, cozy background. I'm working on my third novel. I got the first draft for the cover of my second novel yesterday--which is like Christmas coming early. Perhaps most of all, I love and am loved by an amazing woman who make me happy. She just brought me a sample of the cookies she is baking for our neighbors. Life is good. The Ghost of Christmas Present has been a regular and cheerful visitor at our home this season.
Why do I say all of this?
Partly because I'm grateful for it and I think it's important and healthy for the soul to express gratitude.
But I say all this for another reason. This Christmas is merry and happy--but it's the continuation and fruition of many years of preparation. I realized that the blessings of this Christmas have grown from seeds that were planted many years ago--in ground that did not always seem very promising.
The satisfaction I feel in my children is deep and enriching beyond what I can express. But it was not that many Christmases ago when we had a squalling, screaming infant who would not stop crying. He interrupted our sleep and we didn't think our lives would ever be our own again. The same college freshman who now fills us with joy just by being home with us was much the same. I remember his first Christmas very well--rocking him for hours and hours, singing to him until my throat was dry and cracked, trying desperately to lull him to sleep and get him to stop crying. I remember driving with him through the foothills of Provo, UT on Christmas Eve, hoping the car would make him stop crying--even for a little while. I remember our frayed nerves and nearly despondent hearts as we drove past house after house. The people in those houses, we thought, must have perfect lives. They were warm and cozy and didn't have a screaming baby. The despair that tired parents feel in moments like this is hard to articulate.
My marriage is likewise a source of great joy and satisfaction. My wife is a warm and loving woman. She is loyal and supportive beyond anything I could have hoped for. She is beautiful and intelligent and she fills my life with light. Somehow, she loves me. But it wasn't always easy. I remember many Christmases that were difficult as we worked through the inevitable problems and challenges of married life--times when there was plenty of tears and heartache for both of us. Our marriage is very happy now but that took time and work, patience, tears and years of unstinting, unremitting, unyielding effort, mixed with the determination to make it work.
God is a warm and loving reality in my life. But there were other Christmases when illness ravaged my body and emotions, when I cried out for healing. Christmases where I wept bitter tears for my weaknesses and failings and sins, for the ways I had hurt others or myself. Christmases where I could go on only because I hoped that what we were celebrating was true. Christmases where I cried out for God's mercy and grace not because I deserved it, but because I needed it so urgently.
I have been blessed to be able to write books for fun, and to have them published. It is little-kid-on-Christmas-giddy exciting to see words you labored over become a real book, to have people you don't know read it. It's jump-up-and-down exuberance to get a note from one of those people--even if you don't make any money at it. But, I spent a lot of years--many, many years sitting in front of a Christmas tree writing term papers and 30 page essay final exams, cramming for finals, grading papers for tenured professors, and feeling the special agonies that a student feels at the end of the term. For years, my Christmases were not my own as I struggled to complete a dissertation. I also remember the rejection notices, the agonies that my book would never be published, never find a home.
We have a comfortable living. Not much extra, and it always seems we are only a few paychecks and car repairs away from disaster. But we have a snug cottage with a roof over our heads and food on our table. Literally--our table groans with the kindness of my students and their parents as incarnated in treats and holiday food. But I remember years when things were very lean. When Christmas was entirely dependent on the kindness of anonymous strangers. When I was the only teacher who didn't receive a gift. When we had to decide between health insurance and the light bill.
What has made the difference between the years in the past? The years of leanness and difficulty and the current happy time? I don't for a moment discount the grace of God. To do so would be to discount the effect of the sun on the flowers. Without any doubt, the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem benefitted us and has generated much of the energy behind our blessings. But there is something else that I think is important. Two things, actually.
First of all are the choices. The choice to work through problems in a difficult marriage. The choice to keep pushing through difficult years in academia. The choice to keep having children even when things were rough. To try one more publisher. And so on. Each of those bleak memories is a crossroads, where we could have taken a different path. I'm glad we didn't.
It occurs to me that the good things in life we have come as a result of choices and effort and a lot--so very much--of patience. But--the rewards seem only to come after a very long struggle sometimes. There will be plenty of times when letting go is tempting, in fact, when it seems the only reasonable option. But if you want the reward, you have to keep going a little longer. The blessings will come. We do eventually reap what we sow. I fear that we have moved away from understanding that profound truth as a society.
The problem is that when I needed to make those choices, I didn't have the experience I have now. I was nowhere near wise or mature enough to make the choices that would bring me happiness, or to understand how much joy they would bring. And it's hard to choose joy in the future if it means difficulty in the present--especially when you don't know how much joy.
Fortunately, I had traditions, which were the way my ancestors were able to pass their wisdom on to me, and the direction that comes from my religion. Even though I couldn't know how happy these choices would eventually make me, I made the right decisions out of duty, deference, and obedience. The good news is that it doesn't matter why we make good choices. As long as we make them, it generally works.
I love the idea of choices, of human agency. There is so much I can't control in my life and the lives of my loved ones. But I've learned that I always have choices. And looking at life as a series of choices empowers one and banishes feelings of helplessness. The act of choosing is an act of spiritual creation and seems to bring hope, strength, and resources. That is another truth I fear we have lost sight of culturally.
The second thing that made the difference were people. A thoughtful professor who made a difference in my life. A skillful and compassionate editor for my dissertation. The kind people who provided Christmas for our children. A loving and inspired bishop. Warm and supportive colleagues. The list goes on and on. Now that we are in a good place, I'm trying to be one of these people--to do for other people what was done so often for us. And there is great joy in that.
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