Salvation and Stu Elliott

I was never one of those gifted people who are called to teaching.  In fact, teaching was one of two things my teen self had decided, absolutely, I would never do.  As the oldest of seven children, I was adamant I’d have none of my own, and as a misfit who was terrified by teens, I was intractable in my resolution to eschew any contact with them.

To be a writer was all I wanted, and when I did have children — after all, life and love do intervene —  I envisioned myself a kind of Bohemian Doris Day typing away while her brood ate the daisies, but eventually I needed a profession with a steady income that afforded me the freedom to spend the kids’ vacations with them, and so I landed in teaching.  I got certified and cut my teeth in Phoenix, but my first long-term job was in Connecticut.

By the time I was hired, I knew that I actually liked youngsters, respected their wit and wisdom, felt comfortable among them.  I realized that this might be the result of the fact that those around whom I was actually uncomfortable were my own peers, and I was aware that I would never be good at navigating the rarified world of school system politics.  But over the years, to my own surprise,  I managed to evolve into a competent teacher, a good friend to many of my students, and a strong advocate for them and for my drama program.  I did so because Stu Elliott saved me.

Stu strode into my life as a welcome surprise.  He was a Clintonesque colossus, tall, engaging, boyishly charming and cunningly smart, and he was newly appointed Principal of the school whose grounds abutted the half-acre we had just purchased after our move from the desert. I had dreamily thought — and dismissed as fantasy — that I might be hired to teach there, and to my great delight, Stu chose me to fill a vacancy in the English Department.  When he hired me,  Stu gave me two gifts: some great advice and the drama club.  The drama club came first.

“The school hasn’t had one for years, and I think you’d be good for it, ” he crooned.  Who could resist that?  I could have argued for a Literary Magazine, but I knew, as an English teacher, I would be inundated with student writing, and the Drama Club felt right.

Then, as we shook hands over my contract, Stu looked me in the eye and said, “You’re gonna break the rules.  I know that.  I’m okay with it.  But do me a favor.  Whatever you do in the classroom or in your extracurricular duties, write a rationale.  Give it to me.  If it makes sense to me, then no matter how crazy it seems to the rest of the world, I’ll cover your ass; if it doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll tell you, and you’ll rewrite your plan.”

I never had to do a re-write.  He protected me like a guardian angel, and I loved him in the same innocent, dumbly admiring way the kids did.  He dropped into classes, shook his head in amusement, left singing along with us; he counseled me often when colleagues complained that I “got away with murder.”Stu candid

Too few years later, after a long illness had kept us missing him terribly, when he had just begun to segue back to attending school daily, Stu was hit by a drunk driver during an early morning jog, and he died before the ambulance reached him.  When the shock wore off, when we had accepted his departure as best we could, I would have expected teaching to become unbearable, but he had prepared me.

Before the illness, Stu was reaching up in his career.  He wanted to be a superintendent, and a few opportunities had presented themselves.  Called in to his office one afternoon, I had to nod and agree when he made me promise that I would support and if necessary promote the ascension of our assistant principal to his position.  “She’s not like me, Carla,” Stu said.  “She will drive you crazy because she’s all about the rules.  But she’s good for the school, and so long as you remember to keep writing rationales, you’ll be okay.”

He was actually wrong.  I did campaign for the appointment of his chosen successor, but the rationales never really helped.  Our new principal hated me, told me I was evil because I introduced craziness to the kids, but it didn’t matter.  And the reason it didn’t matter was that Stu had given me the Drama Club, and she could not wrest it from me.

The kids who come out for a drama program are often the smartest, the bravest, the nerdiest kids in school.  They can also be the most beautiful, the most popular, the most conforming.  That’s what is so great about a drama program — it brings the various worlds of high school together in a realm of mutual understanding and respect.  When I recruited the high school football team to play sailors in South Pacific, the cheerleaders came too, and suddenly at the homecoming ball they were all dancing with the “geeks,” singing “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” over the Stevie Wonder single playing on the disk jockey’s turntable.

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Michael Goglia on the set of Crimes of the Heart, which he designed, 1995

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No one had ever trusted me with a screwgun before, and I felt powerful. It was heady

I learned from all my students every day, but the kinds of lessons I learned in drama club, I’d never have learned elsewhere.  When Michael P. Goglia came to me as an 8th Grader and said he would like to “help you out” by designing and building sets, I looked at his skinny little frame and thought, oh sure; but he and his father came every time the auditorium was available, and they indeed built wondrous sets out of the cheapest materials one can imagine, sets Mike had designed.  And unbelievable as it may sound, Mike ran his crew like a well-oiled rig, engaging boys and girls, who had hitherto wielded nothing heavier than a joystick, in the construction of sets, hanging of lights, striking of heavy objects.  More unexpectedly, Michael taught me how to use a Makita (electric drill), how to construct a flat so that it’s sturdy enough to withstand a production but easy enough to dissemble during strike, how to create the illusion of water where none exists, etc.  I had studied acting and had been in productions, but no one had ever trusted me with a screw gun before, and I felt powerful.  It was heady.

When we did Our Town, I fretted about the sight lines for people in the first several rows of the massive auditorium.  Michael said, “Let’s rake it.”  Sure, I thought.  We can do that.  How?  Michael taught the others, and me, and I had no idea how huge this was until later that school year when the town meeting was called to vote on whether to eliminate my nominal stipend from the budget and thereby eradicate our program.  At that meeting, Misha Magoveny, who rarely sought the limelight for anything, addressed the assembled citizenry and explained how she would never have learned what the devil she was studying trigonometry for had it not been for drama.  “See, Ms. Stockton and Mike said we were going to rake the stage, and I couldn’t imagine how you figure out how to do that, but Mike said, ‘You use sin and cosine to find the relationship of the angles, and you go from there.  You know how to do that already.’  And all of a sudden, I understood what my math class was trying to teach me.  We found the angles, and we raked the stage!”

Every day brought new challenges.  The town council rented the auditorium out from under us in the middle of tech week.  The assistant principal approved a cheerleading extravaganza on the stage the same day as a dress rehearsal.  A flood in the storeroom wiped out our expensive muslin (for set construction).  The fencing team made regionals, and half the cast and most of the crew were unavailable for opening night.  Each new stumbling block ended in our laughing at the way we had worked out solutions, creatively, collaboratively.  We all learned the true meaning of teamwork every time we congregated.

Some of our problems were more devastating.  Two of our kids lost fathers within a year of one another; we sustained the loss by suicide, by car accident and by illness of fellow students, and we were assaulted by the insurmountable reality of losing Stu.  Having one another got us through the worst of times, and having one another provided more occasion to celebrate in the best of times.
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My personal battles with my political foes were rendered worthwhile by the faith my drama kids and I had in one another.  Two of my more schadenfreude-inclined colleagues reported that I was smoking marijuana with the kids in the costume room; another reported that I was perhaps, well, you know.  Because of the kind of relationship I had with the kids, no one ever took any of that seriously, and if I had to pay penance for choosing “subversive” material like For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls or Crimes of the Heart, the fact of our alliance fueled my passion.

We traveled to conventions together, went to shows in New York, participated in competitions, created magic on the stage.  Most importantly, we all grew, expanded our horizons, learned to roll with the punches and go with the flow.  We learned to count on one another, to trust one another, to be unafraid to need one another.  We created a family that never superseded our biological families but that always strengthened our faith that family is the institution that matters.

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The cast of The Wind in the Willows, no-budget, student produced and directed children’s play.

Over time, I oversaw summer programs, several in-school programs, and one fabulous conservatory program funded by the State of Connecticut that brought professional and educational theater under the same roof, where NY actors and tech experts taught, mentored and shared the stage with the kids, and we ALL benefitted equally.

When I left teaching, I left because I could no longer fight, and I was always expected to fight.  There was never enough money for the program, so I spent — to the great detriment of my personal kids — far too many hours alongside the indefatigable drama club members, running car washes, mowing townspeople’s lawns, operating cake sales, selling goods at garage sales, etc., to raise the funds we needed to survive.   Everyone agreed that the theater program was worthwhile, but when money is tight, you eliminate fluff, and a theater program is almost always perceived as pure fluff.  I just got to a point where I was exhausted, depleted, drained of my resources.  So I left, and I have never regretted that I did.

But every once in a while, I like to remind myself how glorious it was to be part of that amazing body of youngsters who peopled my programs, how eternally grateful I am for the love and the wisdom they shared with me, how inextricably changed I remain because of the time I spent with them. They made me a better classroom teacher, one who is equally grateful for those students’ presence in my life, and together they all made me a better person.

I am a lucky, lucky woman.  And I owe it all to Stu Elliott.

Whom I continue to miss . . . every day.

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42 thoughts on “Salvation and Stu Elliott

  1. I remember your first year teaching. You had a passion for teaching even if us students lacked a passion for learning.

    • I was in the same class as Jon your first yr teaching and I also helped out with our SR yr production of Bye Bye Birdie!!! I remember thinking you were a breath of fresh air as a teacher…..it being our senior year and all! 🙂 Amy (Blake)

  2. Amy Depola posted a link to this on Facebook. I am doing okay. I am living in Amherst massachusetts

  3. What a great article…I really enjoyed reading it. I loved your class and you were a wonderful teacher! Funny thing is I was just tellin my 14 year old daughter about the field trip you took us on to New York to see the taping of a MTV show. She thought that was awesome and so did I.

    • So nice to hear from you, Shawn. That was one wild and crazy trip, one that only a principal like Stu would have approved!! I don’t know how you guys are seeing this article, but I sure am grateful and delighted to hear from you!

  4. Wow, this brought tears to my eyes (at work, no less). After 20 years, I felt like I was right back on that stage in that huge auditorium (I can still remember the smell) with you and many amazing casts and crews. And whenever I hear Handel’s Messiah, I’m brought back to that same auditorium and the night of Stu Eliot’s memorial – something important really did happen there. Thank you!!

    • Karen, what a wonderful note. Thanks for reading (how?) and for commenting and reminding me about the Messiah. I had forgotten that, and it’s a lovely sound to associate with that lovely man. Thanks for that.

      • Thanks to Karen for bringing this to my attention. It was a pleasure to read about our Drama Club again. It really brought me back to the good ol’ days. I have to admit that every once in a while I’ll still pick up my copy of Much Ado About Nothing and read and reminisce. Drama Club was one of if not the best part of my high school experience. And I can still picture us in your classroom like it was yesterday. Thanks Ms. Stockton!

      • Thanks . . . and thanks for spreading this around. You have NO IDEA how amazingly delicious it has been to hear form so many of you the past two days.

  5. I am so happy to have read this tonight. Seeing your name and reading your words brought me right back to our Senior English class (your first year at NHHS). You made me believe in myself and my work that year like no other teach ever could. 24 years later you are still the first teacher that I can talk about with complete admiration and respect for as well as Mr. Elliott.

    • I was just talking about your class, Beth. In that funny classroom up the step across from the nurse’s office. Can it really have been 24 years? Thanks for writing me, and thanks for reading the post!

  6. As a kid, I could sense that Mr. Eliot was a good principal, when I would see him in the halls or at a cross country meet (seriously, what principal goes to watch his cross country team compete?). But as a teacher myself, reading about your interactions with him, I wish that I had known him better. Leaders like him absolutely do not exist in public education today. The fact that he openly admitted that he TRUSTED you, knowing that you would push the boundaries of what was “acceptable,” is extraordinary. You, and I, and our whole school were better because of Stu Eliot.

  7. Carla, this was a wonderful trip down memory lane, both happy and sad, as most of those lanes are. I’m so happy to have heard your “voice” again, as you are the educator I stive to emulate in my career. It was your senior English class, and your taking me in as a very mediocre actor, that motivated me to pursue teaching. I’m happy to say I’ve been teaching English in small town, upstate NY now for 16 years, enjoying it very much, and you remain my inspiration in the field. If not for the drama club, I would never have been able to teach. What better way to prepare for a class of 30 than to try it out in an auditorium of hundreds. I can’t thank you enough, and I’m so glad to have stumbled upon this (thanks, Karen!) rememberance of a great man.

      • I found my way to Coxsackie (20 miles south of Albany) and hope to spend my career here, not that I could escape. My wife is an alum (who returned, thankfully, from Portland, Ore.) and our son, Hudson, has an obvious namesake thanks to our many walks to the river. I hope our paths may cross again some day. I’ll be sure to read your book this summer when I get to resume my pleasure reading. Congrats on the publication!

      • Ah, Coxsackie,  so you remained close to the Union arena. . .  . I was just in Amsterdam last week.  The foothills of the Adirondacks, my home area. Thanks for the congrats.  The book is not my story — those are coming — and it could have used a good editor and a cooperative subject (I wanted to explore things in more depth than we did .  Sigh. I’m going back to school in fall — got a fellowship at Columbia to do the MFA in creative writing.  But for the summer I’m putting a program together about the importance of theater programs in schools and communities.  Take a look at the page on FB https://www.facebook.com/DramaDaysProject. What you wrote in your first comment would be a great contribution to the page.  I’d love to have you add that and any photos or reminiscences you can think of.  I, too, hope we’ll cross paths again.  Hudson’s lucky to have you for a dad.  Regards to all, especially to your mom and sister. c

  8. I used to work in the office after school during my senior year, and I remember Mr Elliot saying ” She runs this place after school” to the office secretaries, as he left one night. I remember that summer, going away with a friend and calling my mom when I got home. I remember her telling what had happened to him, and just being beside myself in shock….He was a very sweet man…As you are a great teacher. I remember the class where you let us bring in our favorite song and then had the class interpret it..I thought that was the coolest thing EVER at that time 🙂 .(mine was Janis Joplin’s “Get it While You Can”..I miss those days sometimes, and when my son complains about a teacher he doesn’t like, I tell him he must have one that he like??? -and ” I had this one English teacher, she was great! Her name was Mrs Stockton and……” 🙂 So nice to see you again 🙂

    • I remember Mr. Eliot saying that about you, Jennifer!! And I remember well the Joplin share — you were so hesitant at first. Thanks for the lovely words. I am, honestly, blown away by the outpouring I’ve been receiving. . . . I knew you kids were the BEST. c

  9. It was SO great reading this yesterday. It was quite funny, since I was in my daughter’s middle school yesterday, and overheard the principle jovially speaking, and immediately thought of Mr. Elliot!. I have recently returned to theatre, and think about drama club every time I’m up on stage. From Music Man to Lil’ Abner to Deathtrap to Midsummer Night’s dream! Drama Club was all of my closest friends! Thanks Carla!

  10. Stu and I both drove Plymouth Volares….. How did I know that? He was a great principal and great man. As I was reading this piece, without checking who the author was, I knew it was Ms. Stockton…… Your voice and passion are unmistakable…..

    • Thank you, my dear! So you’re still the delightfully charming Chris McGirr of old. I remember that you pointed out your co-cartaste. I remember ridiculous stuff like that. . . So nice to hear from you! Thanks. c

  11. HI Carla
    I wanted to send you a direct message but couldn’t figure out how to do it but hopefully there’s no character limit. Then again,posting publicly might mean that some of your former students who knew my Dad will see this post, which would be wonderful, because their comments brought me as much joy as the gift of your wonderful tribute/post. Yes, this is Amy, Stu’s now-37-going-on-38 year old daughter. Your post miraculously found its way to me through a former NHS student with whom I had attended the Center for Creative Youth the summer my dad died. The accident happened on the day I came home from that program so the friends I made there are forever etched in my memory and this particular fellow camper and I have stayed in touch over the years. She somehow came into possession of the memorial brass plaque that once hung near or in the auditorium, found in the wreckage when they were renovating the space and was good enough to send it to me (it weighs at least 75 lbs!) in New York seven years ago. And all these years later, it was this student who dug up my email address and forwarded your blog post to me.
    Carla, I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to read your recollections. I have always said that other people’s memories of someone you loved and lost are the best salve around and while the pain of losing him has understandably mellowed in the intervening decades, I never tire of hearing stories about him. Which is why your words, and your students’ comments, are so incredibly precious to me. It will be 21 years this August 1st and it is amazing to think that his legacy endures and that you are still able to recall him so vividly. I, and my extended family (many of whom are educators), truly can’t thank you enough.
    What you may not know is that my Dad was a HUGE fan of musical theater! And nurtured this interest in me (I was Spring Awakening three times!)…I know I went to many of the shows at NHS. I remember Grease most vividly, starring a girl named Valerie Abate, this blonde beautiful girl who I was definitely in awe of. Middletown High did not have a drama club that thrived like yours (I was very envious of the program at his school!) so I mainly pursued sports and did some shows at Oddfellows playhouse. At Vassar, I went on to sing in an all-female a cappella group, which was something I know my dad would have really been into (and you probably would have heard all about it). I would love to correspond with you further if you’re so inclined. What is your email address (I had to put in mine to post here, so maybe you will be able to message me?).
    It is clear that you are one of those rare gifted, dedicated teachers that the world owes so much to. Thank you for continuing to give to your students after my dad was gone, I’m sure it’s what he would have wanted and if he were around, would surely greet you with a bear hug every time your paths crossed. I miss those hugs myself, and your post kind of felt like one. Please keep in touch.
    With gratitude and admiration,
    Amy Elliott
    Brooklyn. NY

    • Mr. Elliott once said to me of the butterfly effect, “The ripples are endless, you know. We’ll never really know how far our actions and our words have resonated. But you can bet they will.” Posting this piece,inspired by the memories stirred by my delving into a new project extolling the virtues of youth theater, has brought a rush of butterfly wings, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am.

      Thank you, Amy Elliott. The North Haven “kids” and I are ever so glad we can carry your father’s enthusiasm into ever widening spheres. He was a wonder, and I know you do him proud.

      • Amy. I want you to know that I loved your dad the way that — and for many of the same reasons that — Carla did/does.

        I was one of many many Amity staff members shocked and horrified and *angry* when the Amity Board of Education did not appoint him principal of our high school. And I was so proud of his answer to one of the Board’s questions to him the night of the final, public interviews: responding to a question about areas of focus, he talked about the kid in the middle of the row by the window, the one who isn’t extra-bright or extra-athletic… the one in the middle who tends (especially at a place like Amity) to be forgotten. He promised never to forget those kids. I literally had tears in my eyes.

        I taught at Amity for 36 years. Never in all that time did I have as fine an administrator to work with as Stuart Elliott. Never.(And there were some damned good ones!)

        And just like one of the students above, I too can never hear the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah without thinking of your dad, and of the resonance of the throat-choked yet amazingly sweet music echoing in the sanctuary of the church in Middletown that sad day.

        Also, perhaps my favorite Stu story: I was the creator/writer/editor of the monthly PTSA newsletter, and was tasked to interview Stu when he first arrived. It was a lively and wide-ranging one. I closed by asking him what thought he wanted to share that we had not covered. He replied that he wished to share a lesson his grandfather had taught him: “Skunks squat to squirt.” I printed it! The very irreverence of such a silly/funny comment in the context of “Let us introduce the new administrator hem hem hem… ” captures Stu.

    • Amy –
      My name is Rosanna Preziosi. My husband Lou and I worked with your dad at NHS. Carla’s reflections about your dad bring back the fondest of memories we have of that very, very special man. We adored your dad!
      We are now retired and live on Cape Cod. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times we find ourselves reminiscing about him and those wonderful years we worked with him. We were truly blessed to have known him. Your dad made everyone feel important.

      We heard so much about you from your dad in the years we worked together.
      You were his everything.
      We will always love him and miss him!
      Be well!
      Rosanna

      • Thanks, Rosanna. As with the other notes I’ve received for Amy, I have shared this one with her in an email. Thanks for taking the time to write. I know that Amy and all of Stu’s family are warmed by the outpouring of love he has evoked. Best. c

  12. Carla, My name is Gail Elliott Neidhold. I am Stu’s sister. Amy shared your post with me. You are a gifted writer for your words took me back 20 years. Thank you for sharing. It meant a lot to me to see that there were still people who think about Stu. I am a teacher is Spokane, WA. I have a sign in my room that reminds me that something important happens there. Stu loved kids. He told me that there was something wrong with education in that the farther up the ladder you moved, the farther away from kids you moved. I miss his sense of humor and yet his seriousness when you needed it. I too remember singing at his memorial and seeing all the bus loads of kids in the balcony. I remember thinking that I hoped the service made an impression on them. I am looking forward to reading you book. Thank you again for your moving tribute. May we all have a Stu in our lives that pushes us to greater things. Even in his absence I still think of him as encouraging me on.

    • Thank you so much, Gail. If anyone ever doubted the butterfly effect, Stu’s life is proof positive of how it works!! I am so grateful for your words, your memory. We were all so fortunate to have had your brother in our lives, but clearly he was equally fortunate to have had you as well. You carry on his work and his joy in your own work, and that is for him (at least part of) the gift of immortality.

  13. I loved reading this piece. Stu Elliot was an amazing man! I loved him as a principal. I remember learning of his death and attending his services on the school buses from North Haven High. I remember you too Mrs. Stockton. I was also in the cast of Bye Bye Birdie! It was probably the most fun I had in high school. I never had you as a teacher, but always wished I did. Now I am a Principal in Hamden. Stu is often in my toughts. Thank you for confirming what I already knew about him. Sincerely, Stacie Franco DAntonio.

    • Thank you so much, Stacie. I deeply appreciate your comment, Stacie, and I especially love the report of your professional success. I remember you well, you and all the Birdie kids, my first show with NHHS, my first prom, my first graduating class! Thank you so much for writing. Enjoy the (haha) summer (hahahahaha) break. Best, c

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