Sixteen years ago I was in 7th grade and I felt like my young life was over. There was probably quite a bit of young teenage angst wrapped up in those feelings, but there was also a lot of self-loathing, the beginnings of an eating disorder that lasted until I was 18, and contemplations of whether or not I was “brave” enough to seriously consider suicide. I desperately wanted to be needed, I needed to be wanted, and I was a complete mess.
My oldest brother, 10 years my senior, had just finished his role as Pianist Extraordinaire for a community theater production; the director, Jan, also happened to be the theater teacher at my junior high school. As a sort of last hurrah, the production staff (all legit adults and good friends) decided to take a trip to Disneyland after the show closed. Jan decided to buy my sisters and I metallic souvenir pencils with tops that were bent into the outline of Mickey Mouse; I can’t imagine they cost more than $1.50, even with Disneyland markup. I was raised to be polite and courteous, so I decided to thank Jan in person for her thoughtful gift (and I also probably made some snide, sarcastic comments to my brother for not bringing home a souvenir for his own flesh and blood…like I said, polite and courteous). During my lunch period I stopped by the theater room to thank Jan for thinking of me and sending along the pencil. Jan was a week away from the opening night of our junior high’s spring production of Hello, Dolly! She was buried in unfinished projects and asked if I had ever used a paintbrush. Of course I lied and said I had, I figured painting a set was the same as using puff-paint on a Girl Scout’s t-shirt. She immediately put me and my sister to work painting bits of their expansive set and building props like a fancy, Victorian-era hat box (made from scratch out of poster board, wooden dowels and ribbon, thankyouverymuch).
My life has never been quite the same.
For the next five years I was involved in dozens of theater productions in my junior high, high school, and community. I don’t have any tremendous talent for singing, acting, or dancing, but I became a fantastic stage manager. I found my niche behind the curtain outfitted head to toe in black with a headset for a hat, a roll of gaff tape for a bracelet, and a bag of safety pins in my back pocket. I felt needed, I felt wanted, and I started to bloom. Somewhere along the way (specifically, the first week of 8th grade) I accidentally recruited a boy, Josh, to the theater department who would become my best friend and another huge force for good in my life.
I don’t consider myself “in theater,” but as an adult I have worked with hundreds of kids at a local high school where Josh is the theater teacher. I volunteer throughout the school year, spending who-knows-how-many hours amongst dramatic, irrational, smelly, amazing teenagers hoping that they will feel wanted and needed and loved and special.
This story is not really about me. I mean, the preceding events are accurate and absolutely part of my personal history, but this story is not about me. Jan, my fearless junior high school theater teacher, single-handedly changed my teenage years and gave me a dose of confidence I desperately needed that lasted long enough to propel me through and out of high school and into the adult world. Jan encouraged me and championed me when I felt worthless, she saw me when I was invisible. She taught me to love Shakespeare and Sondheim. She taught me how to use a paintbrush and a drill; how to fix a zipper or a ripped hem in the dark in under 20 seconds; how to transform white styrofoam panels into an ancient rock wall. She tried to teach me a Cockney accent, which is when we both discovered I am far better and more comfortable behind the curtain than in front of it. I learned organization, time management, innovation, creativity, and problem-solving while working through rehearsals and helping the tech crew. I also learned that I was not only wanted, but needed, in her productions. Looking back, Jan was the biggest and most influential positive force in my formative years. Jan has moved on from coaching junior high students, in the last decade I have attended several of her productions around the state and have had the pleasure of seeing the results of hundreds of thousands of hours spent on behalf of generation after generation of young people, influencing them for good, expanding their minds and horizons, and forever changing their lives. I have always considered myself one of Jan’s Kids, and after 16 years I don’t see that ever changing.
Somewhere back there I mentioned that my friend Josh now teaches theater at a local high school and I have the pleasure of helping him out with some of the fun stuff. For the last 7 years (!!) I have coached dozens of scenes and monologues, given teenagers thousands of suggestions for improvement, designed and sewed more costumes than I really want to think about, and listened to an unsurprising number of inane conversations amongst high school students. I have been able to attend LDS mission farewells and homecomings, college graduations, wedding receptions, and even a movie premier for young people I first met in Josh’s rehearsals. I have chaperoned a number of out-of-town theater trips for this group and have been impressed time and again by their maturity and seriousness while away from home. Josh is also one of Jan’s Kids and has raised some really incredible kids of his own, I am proud to be a tiny little part of that circle.
1st Place Ensemble Scene, King Richard II, Showcase Performance
A month or so ago Josh’s students competed at the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s high school competition. (Yes, a competition of Shakespearean actors performing Shakespearean scenes and monologues. It is awesome, don’t judge.) The team did an amazing job and I felt so lucky to be able to watch them bowl the judges over with their dedication, skill, and passion. The team walked away with a number of trophies and an absolutely perfect score. 50-some-odd kids competing with 6 different pieces did not get a single deduction. A day or two later at the performance for their friends and parents a mother tearfully told me how much her child talked about theater, about Josh, and how much her child’s experiences have meant to them both. She asked me why I spend so much time and effort with her children—a question I am asked on a fairly regular basis—my response is always the same: Someone did this for me and it changed my life, and that is why I do it for them. If I can give one kid a fraction of what Jan gave to me it will make all my efforts worthwhile.
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