High School, Our Town, and a Purple Carnation

TrishTheme

by Trisha Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief
Graphic by Danielle B. Szabo

I was a Freshman in high school when I met my theatre mentor. He changed my life, completely altered its course.

And then he died during my Senior year.

As a nervous, red-faced and pigtail-haired 14-year-old, I stumbled into his classroom. I handed off my crinkled headshot and resume before I recited my two contrasting monologues. It wasn’t necessary, none of the other students had them. But I was trying to make a good impression. I tried not to make eye contact with too many upperclassmen. He took pity on me and struck up a conversation.

He asked me about my dream job — artistic director — and my favorite play — Our Town. He asked me about why I was interested in Our Town, how did I find it relevant? He actually wanted to talk as well as listen, a novelty at that point in my life. As a student, everyone told me what I should think about what I was reading or how I should interpret it. No one ever gave me the opportunity to explore my own thoughts about a piece. It felt like my first real conversation.

He told me about his daughter’s love for Our Town. They went to see it every year, and she cried every single time. I said I could relate.

The rest of that year flew by as my mentor and I grew closer. He was no longer just my director, he was also my friend. He handed me larger roles in each production, but I was really hooked by our chats. After rehearsals, I would peruse the scripts that he had lining every square inch of his classroom. He would pull out the Trader Joe’s garlic and herb potato chips that he kept specially for me and we would talk.

Sophomore year, I asked him to be my representative at National Honor Society induction. They gave him a purple carnation for all that he had done to help me. He took a picture with me and my parents. It used to be in a frame in my living room.

Then I started to hear the whispers.

How he made fun of students for their drug-addicted mother or how he failed certain students because he decided they were trouble. How he never seemed to get along with any of the guys and he always chose a Freshmen girl to be his favorite.

I fought these ugly rumors viciously. One by one, I tried to sway people — convince them to understand it from my perspective. No one was seeing the sweet and caring teacher that I was. Until a Freshmen auditioned for the last show of the year: Rosie.

He told me to watch out for her or she would take my place.

I laughed off the joke.

I laughed less over the next year. He stopped asking me to come by his classroom for his talks. Then he started asking me about my involvement with multiple theatre companies. I had been doing theatre at various places around Massachusetts and New Hampshire since I was six years old. I wasn’t going to stop once I got into high school. He just couldn’t understand that.  The word “traitor” began showing up in his vocabulary more frequently.

He berated me in front of the cast, saying that I was not dedicated enough. That others could do and would do better than me.

I thought my friends would stand up for me or take my side at least, but how could I ask them to when we were all vying for his attention? He had the ability to make our lives incredibly happy and we always hoped that we would be one of those lucky few.

He pulled me aside and yelled at me for the rest of the cast not knowing their lines. I felt indignant, it wasn’t my responsibility. I was just an actor, I didn’t have control over everyone else.

He made me rehearse a kiss in a show with my friend, James, for 20 minutes. I had had a crush on James since Freshmen year, something that the director knew. Do it again. That’s not right. Do it again. You aren’t doing it right. I had difficulty pretending to be in love when the whole cast was watching. He kept yelling. Do it again.

I learned later that my mom had snuck into rehearsal and had seen the whole thing.

My mom drove me home that day and said she would like to call the school. I sobbed and begged her not to. She admitted that she had been concerned lately, that his mood swings were affecting me. I fought with her. If he got in trouble, I would have no one else to talk to. Years from that time, I still think that was true. I blame myself for depending on his attention but I understand how special his attention could be.

And we did a lot of talking after that. And I did a lot of crying in his classroom, a place that had become my home. I would plead for him to tell me what I could do better. He said there was nothing more that I could do. I was the most disrespectful student he had ever worked with. In thirty years of teaching, he told me that he could not believe he had wasted time on me.

He told me that I was a traitor and lazy. He told me that I wasn’t good enough.

I hated taking the bus home after talks like this. I walked down the aisle trying to cover my puffy face and watery eyes.

Getting in the car with my mom after talks like these was worse. Suppressing the hiccups, wiping my nose. She can’t get mad if she doesn’t know.

It was my fault after all. I had to be what he said I was. A teacher that I respected and revered was telling me that I was no longer worth his time and attention. I had done something horrible that I couldn’t even place my finger on. I figured that there must be something deeply wrong with me that he found out. I didn’t want anyone else to know and I didn’t want him getting in trouble for revealing a flaw that was my own fault.

I stopped auditioning so that I didn’t waste his time. The season announcement for my Senior year came. Our Town was the next spring.

I wasn’t sure if he was trying to get me to come back. Or saying that he didn’t need me anymore. I still don’t know.

That year the Spanish Honor Society inducted me, same time and place as National Honor Society. I noticed that he was there again. Some sophomore. They gave him an orange flower this time. I said “Hi” and he pretended not to notice.

My parents bought me ice cream and tried to convince me that this would not last forever.

I was in Chemistry with my big goggles and stained apron about a month later doing an experiment with Nicole, another girl from Drama Club. An announcement came on the loudspeaker asking teachers to check their emails.

I didn’t pay any attention to that announcement and just started the lab experiment.

A new announcement came on announcing his death. Nicole dropped to the floor. I said I would walk her to the grief counseling center. I thought I was fine, but I didn’t return to any of my classes that day.

They didn’t tell us how he died. His obituaries don’t say either. I guess I didn’t really want to know anyway.

After his death, when they put all the theatre students in his old classroom to lead us through grief exercises, we revolted. We didn’t want to talk about our feelings and fill out worksheets about depression. We wanted to pretend he was still alive. We raided his desk and ate his snacks instead. There was still a bag of my chips after all that time.

We decided that first day that we were still doing Our Town. I wanted to audition. I missed him. We would have made up if we had just had more time. He was clearly reaching out to give me a second chance. I could have done it again, and done it better this time.

I was cast as Emily, and I spent each day in rehearsal trying to imagine what it would be like if he was in the front row. Instead, I found his daughter. I spoke my monologue about missing the world, and we stared at each other. She cried, just like he said she would.

His ex-wife talked to me after the show. She gushed about how he had talked about me all the time and that he knew that I was born to become an actor. As she cried and told me about a man who had endless amounts of respect for me, I realized that this was a man that I did not know. I realized that the man I knew was cruel and manipulative and that he did not really know me either. I had given up the past four years of my life to impress someone who used every moment of that against me. And I was still obsessed with him. And more importantly, I was going to make my life about him. I didn’t want that anymore.

But he had given me a gift. In those first two years, we conversed. He taught me that I had the ability and the power to articulate my thoughts and analysis and people would listen. With those talks, he gave me the seeds of dramaturgy. While he was convincing me to become an actor, he was laying the groundwork for my true passion — dramatic criticism. He was the first person to listen to me, but when he stopped, I found many others who would.

I suppose that is why I am in school studying Dramaturgy/Criticism. Those afternoons sitting in purple plastic desk chairs, hunched over hundreds of scripts while talking about the relation of text to life were some of my favorite moments.

My feelings about him are complicated, but it has taken me three years to admit that they are. I was convinced for so long that he was the best person to ever enter into my life. It has taken me three years to admit that that is not true.

At this moment in time, I truly hate him. But those feelings change by the hour. He spent two years of his life building me up, and then two years utterly destroying me. Now I am lifting myself up without his help.

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