Three Dead Men

It’s been a rough month for understanding emotions. In a rush of sudden departures, I have lost three complex men, with whom my relationships were equally complicated. What follows is my initial effort to rummage through the shadows and identify my most honest responses to their deaths. Not a simple task.

All three were remarkable. One narcissist, one divo, and one hero. All brilliant. All loving, hateful, kind, and even abusive. You were right Bobby Burns. 

The Narcissist

Urs in 2008 – He loved this image of himself

The first death notice was for Urs, a former lover and confidant, who died suddenly in Switzerland. After years of dickering about how and if, Urs and his brother were finally renovating the family homestead near Zürich. In typical Urs fashion, he was cavalierly riding atop a trailer loaded with trash. He slid off and fell under a tractor wheel, which instantly crushed him. My first reaction when I heard the news was a simple nod. Every time I walked or biked with Urs in traffic, I would beg him to observe caution, to obey street signs, to listen to oncoming traffic. He laughed. It was, he reminded me, his desire to go suddenly, without pomp. “I wish to be snatched into the void before I have time to think about it or to be a burden to my children,” he declared. Death by garbage truck became him.

A self-proclaimed polymath, Urs was a financial wiz, a legal eagle, a filmmaker, a photographer, a writer, a painter, a collector. He loved art and argument, music and mental mayhem. His self-absorption was peerless. In his mind, everything revolved around him. He imagined every eye was on him from morning till night. He owned enough pairs of glasses – he called them his mood measurers – to open a curiosity shop of eyewear and had closets full of clothing that would make the Kardashian women seem frugal. He cast all rules of engagement, suffered no fools, tolerated no dissension. I knew that if I didn’t agree with him, if I didn’t like what he chose or did or wanted, he was finished with me. That was all. And for reasons I hardly understood, I was okay with that. Perhaps it was because, at the same time, he could surprise me with his generosity. He arranged a career-changing job for me, and that job took me to London, where I was able to live for nearly three months, thanks entirely to his hospitality. He believed in the opportunity, and he believed in me. . . so long as I was in some way an extension of him.

Urs had a rapier wit, a deep appreciation for irony and The Absurd. He was expert at mugging, and his jokes were delightful. I lost myself in him, allowing his intellect to eclipse mine, encouraging him to void my will. He was an anomaly, and I might have fallen in love with but for his abject cruelty.

One day, as we walked in the NY neighborhood where my son and his family lived, we happened to meet up with my daughter-in-law. She was only a few weeks post-partum and was having her nails done in a local salon. Urs greeted her in the European manner, kissing her on each cheek before he announced imperiously for all to hear, “You look terrible. Did you know you’ve become quite saftig?”

That night, as we prepared for bed, I demanded that Urs apologize. Without discussion, he ordered me to leave. “It’s the middle of the night,” I whined. “You’ll have to walk me home or come down and hail me a cab.” Wordlessly, he pointed me to a mattress on the floor in an adjacent room. At first light, I went home. We were done.

Il Divo

No one was as able as The Coach to elicit genuine brilliance from young singers.

Next was “Dr. Coach,” my longtime collaborator and cheerleader.

I can still hear the sonorous voice that greeted me over the phone the first time I encountered him. “Hello,” it crooned. “Carla Stockton, this is __________, Ph.D., and I have heard so very much about you. I am calling to make an offer I know you won’t refuse.” I didn’t. How could I?

The offer was the job of artistic director for an educational summer theater program for which he was musical director. Ours became a fertile partnership. For several years, we created spectacular productions together – putting talented kids to work building sets, creating costumes, stage managing, acting, and singing for works such as Into the Woods, Most Happy Fella, Sweeney Todd, A Chorus Line, Pippin . . . .

People were astounded. The music we chose was challenging – highly operatic, written for seasoned performers – and the kids nailed it every time. That was all Coach. He could have coaxed music from a plank of wood, and his ability to evoke musical perfection from our charges, to motivate them to reach ever loftier goals, was nothing short of magical. I worked with many music directors over my years in educational theater. Never did I encounter anyone as effective a teacher as he was.

But he had a dark side. He was prone to mad bouts of depression during which he became surly, abusive. He berated me for every possible flaw, both real and imagined, I might have. “You spend too much time on the chorus scenes when we should be working the quartet. Let the idiots go, and focus on our stars.” “Your hair is getting too long, and I think you need a new look. Tell that skinflint of a husband of yours to get you a haircut and a new outfit. I’m tired of jeans.” “You’ll never understand this music. I sometimes think you have a tin ear.” He also had some troubling proclivities.

At the time, Coach was a 60-something-year-old man with a yen for school-aged women. Especially for the youngest, prettiest, most voluptuous, most gifted. Over the years I knew him, he never expressed interest in any woman older than 18. Fortunately, however, he was careful and self-aware, and I never worried he would do anything untoward.

During preparations for a show, he would call me after each rehearsal to share with me which girls he was lusting after. I think he did that to shield himself, to hear me say how absurd it was, what a ridiculous fancy. He never touched them, never crossed any lines of impropriety. I listened and chided him without scolding, encouraging him to continue confiding in me and to continue holding himself back. His passion seemed to enable him to be a kind of Pygmalion for the women he craved, breathing splendiferous life into voices they did not realize they had.

Before the first summer theater season began, I called on Coach to collaborate on a project at the high school where I was employed. I had been asked to direct the senior class production of Into the Woods. I knew there was no way I could pull that show off without a superior music director. Despite the fact that he was in the thick of his choir duties at his school, in addition to the performance he and his students were preparing to take to Washington, Coach eagerly added my project. In auditions, we were dumbfounded by the discovery of a young woman with a flawless soprano voice. She had never sung before, she said, but she already commanded a full three-octave range, and her high notes were the purest I had ever heard. Coach was instantly smitten. He threw himself into the task of coaching her to play the very demanding role of the Witch. She, too, immersed herself in the work.

Every night after rehearsal, Coach would call me and pour out his besotted fantasies. Every day we would go back into rehearsals, where he would maintain complete decorum. Their efforts resulted in a wondrous performance. I have never heard “Children Will Listen” sung as well as that child delivered it. The innocence in our witch’s crystalline voice resonated, gave the song added import. Children did listen.

In 1998, at Coach’s insistence, I wrote a successful grant proposal for a conservatory-style summer program that had an afterschool training component in Bel Canto voice and Shakespearean acting. The State of Connecticut gave us an unprecedented amount of money. We hired actors and technicians and instructors, artists to create seminars and field trips. We were able to produce four plays in repertory. We recruited students from all over the state, and we met in a classroom at a local university from September till May. Then, in the summer, we housed our students at the same campus and bused them to our host high school, where they attended classes and seminars, rehearsed the plays they were in, ate the three meals we provided. We were able to hire dorm supervisors and to take elaborate field trips. It was a golden year, and we were the talk of New Haven County. We could have become an institution. Until Coach lost his resolve.

Soon after summer rehearsals began, Coach realized he could not live without one of our stars. She was a delightful young woman, beautiful and innocent, with a glorious voice. At first, Coach kept his feelings to himself, controlled his cravings. But each day brought him new frustration, and by the second week of the three-week rehearsal run, he was telling not just me but anyone who would listen that he could hardly contain himself any longer. He even told his male students. He was in love, he moaned, and he just must, must, must tell her. At this point, my tolerance waned. “You can’t tell her. You have to stop telling your boys. And you cannot touch her. This has to stop NOW.” He curbed his hunger, but we were no longer friends.

I was sad to lose him, but I was diverted by personal concerns and paid no attention to what he was up to. He took advantage of my silence and spread nasty rumors. He told parents of some of our young techies that I had cheated them out of pay. He told the district I had pilfered money intended for buses. He told colleagues in the community that I had subverted the program, and his accusations ensured that our grant was not renewed. I only learned about the tales much later, by which time I had no desire to engage with him on any level. I settled into my life and assumed that we would eventually become acquaintances with memories of a very successful collaboration.

Sometime in 2006, and I saw him examining the produce in a local market. Spreading my arms wide, I declared, ”_____________, Ph.D., I haven’t seen you in forever!” He glowered at me for a millisecond, then turned his back and walked away.

The Hero – DAN ALON, his story follows in the next entry.

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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.