A LETTER TO A FORMER TEACHER OF MINE
I'm so pleased that you remember me. You had so many kids continually clamoring for your attention, it really means alot that my name even rings a bell.
Can I share a memory with you?
I remember the first time that we met. I had just moved with my family to Bellevue only a few weeks before school started. The previous year I had attended a military academy where I played varsity football and was on an athletic scholarship. Not bad for a sophomore. My Dad, a talented jock his entire life, was so happy and proud. But after a year, I knew that Culver was not the place me. Rough crowd. I mean, there were kids there with some serious problems. I also knew that I'd had enough of football. I'd been playing since 6th grade and I wanted out.
This wasn't something I had ever told my father. He talked nonstop about how big I was getting, how good I was becoming as a lineman. With each passing year, it was less and less fun for me. Culver had many graduates continue on to Notre Dame. My Dad was planning out my future for me, and I couldn't find the courage to tell him to stop. All that I knew was that I wanted out of the Military and off of the Team.
In order to get out of the military school, I had to paint a picture for my parents of drug use and severe anti-social behavior by my fellow cadets. It wasn't tough. I told a story about climbing the campus water tower with some friends and drinking a bottle of Southern Comfort. I chronicled accounts of "plebe" hazing by the upperclassmen. I told them about my roommate, who spent his time making model airplanes and sniffing glue. I didn't have to make these stories up, they were true. I asked my folks if they would be disappointed if I didn't return to Culver the next year. My father agreed, and noted that since the family was relocating to Nebraska, it looked like I was going to become a Cornhusker. I remember telling him that I thought the Huskers were cooler than the Fighting Irish anyway. I told him I'd check out the school's program when we got to town.
So, I get to Bellevue and every day my Dad tells me to walk to the school and introduce myself to the football coach and get started in the morning workouts that were already in progress. I put it off for as long as I could. I just couldn't bear the thought of two more years of killing myself every summer in order to prepare myself for hanging out with the intellectual midgets that I had judged high school athletes to be. But, time was getting short, and I needed to get to school to register for classes as well as make a decision about my future in Football.
Walking up the hill to the school (we lived in Cherry Hills), I saw the guys practicing. I saw the tackling dummies and the equipment and the kids running drills and the coaches in shorts yelling at them. I heard the coaches whistles and the team's grunts and the groans. My stomach was in a knot. How was I going to tell my father, who loved this shit, that I wanted no part of it anymore? My Dad was a pilot in the Air Force and was gone for long stretches at a time when I was growing up. Football was a way for us to connect. One of a very few ways. I'm his only son. I wanted to please him.
When I got to the school, instead of going straight out onto the field, I decided to go into the school building, just to check the place out. Also, to think. I tried the front door. It was locked. I knew the gymnasium door must've been open, but I didn't want to be seen by the coach. Too risky. I'd be in shoulderpads whether I wanted to or not, if I wasn't careful. There were another set of doors down by the auditorium so I went over to them. I was relieved when they opened. I stood in the auditorium lobby for a few minutes wondering what to do next. At one end of the lobby there was a trophy case filled with statues and awards. They were for Debate and something called "Forensics". Cool enough, I supposed. I tried to formulate just the right excuse that would work on my Dad for not signing up for football. I was burnt out? That wouldn't fly.
After playing varsity and being on a scholarship, uh, I felt it beneath me to have to start over and prove myself in a new program? I knew better than to try that one. Jocks are morons? Dad was a jock! What in the hell was I going to do? No way around it, if I didn't play football, my Dad was going to KILL me.
I opened the doors going from the lobby to the auditorium. Jesus, the place was HUGE! I slipped into a chair off the aisle in the last row. I just wanted to sit and think. The place was quiet. It seemed so civilized. I sat and stared into space..After a moment, a man walked out to the middle of the empty stage wrestling a wooden window frame with fabric stretched across it. He then started beating the hell out of it with a hammer.
I must have coughed or made some kind of noise, because at one point he stopped pounding, put his hand up to block the lights from his eyes and called out to me. He had this big, deep voice and I remember being amazed that I could hear him so clearly while being so far away from him.He invited me to join him on the stage while he worked. And, I must admit, I was curious about what all was back there, behind the proscenium. What I found, when I got up there, was an arsenal of sets suspended above my head, way the hell up there! I saw a lightboard with what must've been a thousand switches. I saw a garage-like shop area off to one side filled with lumber and paint. I saw what looked like an acre of hardwood flooring that made up the stage, empty and vast. I never knew a stage could be so big. I saw the dark orchestra pit just beyond the lip of the stage. And I saw all those empty seats in the auditorium, all facing in my direction. I saw a catwalk that you couldn't see if you sat in the audience, where spotlights were positioned and pointed down on me. I kept looking at those seats. Cool enough.
He asked me a lot of questions, this guy. All the while, he was smacking boards apart with his hammer. He had on blue jeans and a denim shirt, both covered in paint, and he had a full red beard with fairly long hair, for an adult.I figured he was a janitor.He said his name was Kent Hanon. That he was a teacher who taught Drama and put on a Fall Play and a Spring Musical each year. He asked me if I had considered taking Drama as a elective.As he talked to me, he kept his eyes on his work. Since he wasn't much looking at me while I spoke, I found myself telling him more than he initially asked. Within five minutes, I was spilling my guts about my miserable situation. I kicked at a piece of masking tape stuck to the floor. I picked up a long flat and marveled at how thin and wobbly and light it was. I found myself telling this man everything I struggled so hard to express to my own father, yet couldn't find the words.And he LET me talk! I bitched about my Dad and his obsession with Sports. I bitched about my family. I bitched about military school. I bitched ALOT about Football.
Since he wasn't staring at me, I had ample opportunity to watch him. He didn't seem like a "Theatre"-type guy to me at all. Weren't all men in the performing arts, like, effeminate homosexuals? Isn't being responsible for putting on a school play considered punishment in some school systems? Was this guy for real?I remember when he laughed, he threw back his head to expose a set of teeth that, I'm still certain, were more numerous than neccessary. He was all teeth when he smiled. I liked this guy, I knew right away. He wasn't stuffy and formal.He let me have my say. He nodded appropriately when he was conveying that he understood my point, he knitted his brow and grimaced when I spoke of a particularly serious aspect of the same point, for the tenth time. And he, along with me, weighed the consequence of the dilemna at hand. Yet, he waited until I said, "...and I don't know what to do..." before he offered his opinion.
He told me that I knew what I needed to do. He told me that being a Man means taking control of your life. He said that I underestimated my father's love for me if I thought he couldn't understand, or love me, because I don't share his same interests.
"Follow your heart, and be willing to stand up for yourself", he said. "Be a Man. Lots of people don't like sports. Big deal. You don't think your Dad can deal with that? How much longer are you going to pretend to be someone you aren't?"
Then, he shrugged and wandered offstage to bring over another chunk of the set he was breaking down.
"Your father is proud of you because he thinks you are exceptional at something that you love to do. When you finally tell him that it's not something you love anymore, he won't want you to waste your time. Give him the chance to rise to the occasion. He can't love you for who you really are unless he knows who you really are. It's time for you to go home and talk to your father."
Then, he pointed out that auditions for the Fall Play, "Arsenic and Old Lace", were only a few weeks away.
And so I did. Talked to my Dad, that is. It wasn't easy, but I went home and sat down with my parents and told them my decision. Turns out that my mother hated football all along and was glad that I had decided not to bash my brains in. Dad was quiet. He said that he thought I was making a bad choice here, but that it was my choice to make. He asked me to keep an open mind in the future, that if I missed it enough, I might want to get back into it.
And this time when I promised, I meant it.
When I registered for classes, I signed up for Drama, and Journalism, and Chorus. Got a small role in the Fall Play as Officer Brophy in "Arsenic and Old Lace". I was given the opportunity to stand on that stage, under those lights, and look out on those seats, now filled with people. I remember noticing that when you're out there, on stage, in front of a big audience, you can hear them breathe! The "buzz" they gave off was amazing! It was a powerful and intoxicating feeling, knowing that you were about to deliver a line that was going to make the crowd laugh.
I loved just standing in the wings, watching the sets fly up and down. I loved the dead-seriousness we all took in putting on a Comedy. And the best part was knowing that at each performance, my father was out there, somewhere, in those seats.And I knew that he was proud of me. Because I was doing something I loved.
In the next two years, my Dad never missed a single performance of mine. He was my biggest fan.
Mr. Hanon, you told me to never underestimate my father or the love he has for me. And since then, I never have. And he has never disappointed me.
Thank you, Kent Hanon!
Jim ("Dancing Bear", class of '77)