I mentioned in yesterday’s blog about nearly dropping out of school on my second day were it not for my guidance counselor and one specific teacher. Well, as promised, here is the rest of the tale.
After leaving my English class after being laughed at and ridiculed for having a stutter, I took my 15 year old ass to see my guidance counselor, a person I had never met before. I painstakingly explained what I wanted to do (although I think he knew the reason as soon as I opened my mouth and my head dropped in defeat) and he asked to see my schedule of classes. I handed it over, fresh from a dot-matrix printer, and he turned to his clunky desktop computer with the black screen and bright green letters (yeah, they weren’t always bright and shiny you know) and brought up a list of courses I could take. I said I wasn’t interested and that I just wanted to go across the street and work at the gas station instead. It might be worth noting that I’m pretty sure, even back then, I wouldn’t have been allowed to officially drop out of school without my parents’ permission (which I never would have received), but you don’t think of such things when you’re on a mission.
He said he could transfer me to another English class with his favorite of the school’s great English teachers. I guess I should say that English wasn’t an English language class but an English literature class. It was always only called English though. For that I would have to drop typing, which I had taken cause I thought I might get a typewriter and start typing short stories instead of hand-writing them, and look for a course to fit where my previous English class was. He turns to me and says, “We can put you in drama right here.” He doesn’t flinch.
Drama? Is this clown serious? “What part of not wanting to talk to people again don’t you understand?” I knew I stuttered when I initially told it to him before we tried to shuffle my courses around, but I knew he heard me. He heard that time as well after he suggested I take drama.
“Tell you what,” he started, “let’s go and meet the drama teacher. If you meet him and still don’t want to take drama and still want to quit school, I’ll drive you across the street to the gas station and fill in your application form for you.” He held out his hand wanting me to shake it.
The deal was too good to pass up. There was no way I was taking drama. I gratefully shook his hand and left his office smiling for the first time in hours. I’m following the signs to the auditorium and he stops me.
“We’re not going in the auditorium doors. We’ll use the stage door instead.” He opened the door and let me through.
What greeted me was as explosive as any wet dream I may have had. As a kid who had been relying on his imagination to take him away from life and even create friends for him, this place was the mother lode. There were mannequins in various state of undress and disarray, costumes hanging from push racks and every other place a coat-hanger could fit. There were props scattered, lights and sound equipment gathering dust until the next big performance. And in the back corner, a tiny door with a tinier window to its left. Beneath the catwalk above, where the lighting techs would patrol during a show, this little hut lay buried around what looked like the remnants of Padua or Genoa. As I took it all in, a face pressed against the window and peered outside, the door opening shortly afterwards. And then he walked out.
He wore a flannel button-up shirt, sleeves rolled up past his elbows. His faded blue overalls fit over his belly, a pair of work boots loosely tied to his feet. He stood well over 6 foot tall, all imposing and commanding, but that wasn’t the half of it. His flowing white hair, not grey, cascaded past his shoulders and his white beard hung to his chest. If Santa Claus and Zeus were to somehow manage to have a child, I would be staring at its prototype. He looks at me, can tell exactly what I’m thinking, can tell that in my current condition I’m years from getting laid and that my only real friend is the husky we keep in our backyard at home.
“What’s his problem?” He turned and asked my counselor.
“Stutter, sir?” The words barely trickled out.
“A stutter.” He seemed delighted. “I’ll take him.”
He shook hands with my counselor again. I never had a chance. He looked at me again as he extended his arm around my shoulder to take me to his office to fill out some paperwork. “We have classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 11 until 12:30. My students are always welcome to hang out here whenever they have a free period or between classes. I will see you on Friday.”
Friday came. I followed a guy into class through the stage door and sat in the auditorium seats with everyone else. My introduction was painful – I had to state my name and why I wanted to take drama, like the rest of the class did on the Wednesday. I stuttered. There was a giggle. The teacher turned to the girl and asked her to apologize or he would remove her from the class. He paired me off with this kid named Steve and we were given a scene from Of Mice and Men to act out. I was a shoe-in for George while Steve, all 200-odd pounds of him, played Lenny. We had a week to learn lines and decide on what props to use. We drew the short straw and had to act first. When I stammered over my first line, and one of the jocks in the class laughed, the drama teacher didn’t lose focus from our performance and just bellowed (like only guys who look like Greek gods can), “Is there something funny about a person trying to overcome his perceived handicap?” Undaunted, I continued on.
My dad was the only person at home who wouldn’t finish my words or sentences for me. He figured if it was important enough for me to say I would say it in my own time and my own way. And looking back, he was right. While it didn’t bother me that people would finish my words for me, I do realize now that it was the easy way out and didn’t really encourage me to speak at all. My drama teacher was of the same opinion as my dad. He would stop people finishing my words for me. Even though they meant well.
Each class my confidence grew. I became less aware that I was stuttering and as such, stuttered less. My fellow classmates each took turns wanting to work with me, as apparently, I was a natural ham and loved the attention. We were putting on a production of Grease, and there were open auditions, but I never signed up. He pulled me away from the class one day to ask me about this.
“I’m just not ready. Not for a stage and an audience that big.” I shrugged my shoulders. It was true. I didn’t want to let the rest of the cast down by ruining the timing of anything.
“Well,” he said. “Have you noticed that you never stutter when you’re singing?”
I had. I think it’s because I just don’t have time to overthink things or worry. I just go with it and not let any outside thoughts in.
“You’ll be fine. Auditions start after school today.”
I went. I wanted a role in the chorus and was denied, saying there were too many other people without a stage background to do it. I needed to audition for a bigger role. I decided on auditioning for the role of the Guardian Angel so I could sing Beauty School Dropout. Quality. Didn’t get it. Wanted a lesser T-Bird. Didn’t get it. Finally caved in and humored him and auditioned for Kinicky. When all was said and done, I landed Danny Zuko, the lead. I was sweating buckets at the announcement. As were others. After the decision had been made, he sat all primary cast members down, many of whom were in the advanced drama classes and not first year like me. Some of the older students who didn’t know me well voiced legitimate concerns, especially the girl playing Sandy. His response was simple and comforting. “He knows the material inside out, was the most comfortable having to sing, and looks like he’s stuck in a time warp anyway.” He paused for effect. “And if this play is supposed to take 90 minutes and it takes over four hours with him as the lead, then we only have one matinee show and no evening show.” There were no more questions or complaints.
For the record, the production went off with few faults, most not down to me. I would go back to the high school a few times a year after I had left and graduated just to check in on him. He was still his robust and passionate self, which filled me with glee. A quick glance on the Internet tells me I’m not the only student who has taken that drama class and been left with a glowing reminder of a wonderful man and teacher. My drama teacher, Mr Ken Agrell Smith, did more for my stutter than anybody outside my family. He gave a shy kid the gift of confidence, the ability to believe in himself, and the knowledge that if someone didn’t like me for my stutter – I was better than them anyway.