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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