This story was originally posted on 24 October 2011 and has been re-worked and edited below in preparation for a follow-up story. The Corn Stand Caper should be ready in the next few days. Reading this will be beneficial to the continuity.
There have been three separate times when angels interceded in a particularly dark point in my life. Before leading you to believe that I am referring to wing-ed creatures of the cherubim or seraphim variety, I am speaking of a flesh and blood real person who happened into my world when I was in need, and disappeared after a brief time in a mysterious sort of way. Their visit altered my life’s course dramatically. There was nothing ethereal about any one of them. In truth they were acutely human, but there was a mystical aura about each one that still causes a sense of wonderment to this day.
My first angel came to me my sophomore year of high school. I grew up in West Buttfok, Ohio and had the pleasure to attend West B. Elementary School, where I enjoyed learning with some of the finest teachers I have ever known. I loved school and adored learning. I would cry on the final day of class and rue summer vacations, ticking off the calendar until Labor Day when fun would return to my life. All that changed with junior high and adolescence. Suddenly athletics and hoodlums were the focus of the curriculum. Neither my father nor my older brother ever taught me even the basics of any sport. This did not make for popularity with the other boys as I attempted to socialize with my junior high peers. If you could not throw a football or successfully make a basket, you were a hopeless outcast, destined for failure at West Buttfok. The only option remaining was to become one of the bad boys, who sometimes garnered more attention and esteem than even the captain of the football team. They were actually looked upon as heroes by a large portion of the student population of greasers, the most popular group in our school. I knew my parents would never allow me to be bad, so a life of crime was something I’d never pull off.
After serving a dismal two-year stint in junior high, I accepted the fact that high school could only be worse. I became what I later diagnosed as severely depressed. My older brother had joined the Air Force and moved away. The only semi-bright spot in my life was that I inherited his room. It occupied the entire finished attic above our tiny, two-bedroom 1950s bungalow. I would retreat to my garret space the minute I left that malignant academy and spend time writing in journals (still extant), reading Keats and Shelley and consciously attempting to “wish” my parents dead. In elementary school I had dreamed of going to college and becoming a teacher. No one in my family ever went beyond high school. My father had only finished the eighth grade. Now, in my great funk, I had no desire to be anything. I had no interest in the future – my own or the planet’s for that matter. The prospect of four more years of school and a life in West Buttfok was enough to make me want to kill myself. Luckily I was too despondent to bother going through with it.
I got this truly uninspired English teacher my freshman year and so for the first time, even English class was a hateful experience. How much further could my life go down the toilet, I wondered? Freshman year came and went and in my numbed state I remember little to nothing about it. Tenth grade arrived and I was placed in the Honors English section. There was a new teacher to the school system. We’ll call him Mr. Allen. He was young, came from a tiny town in southern Ohio, and had been teaching only a few years. He seemed like an odd duck, but thankfully did not fit in with the rest of our vacuous faculty. If you took him apart feature-by-feature he was not remarkable, but there was an intriguing something there that made me sit up and feel an attraction I’d never known before.
We began the year reading ROMEO AND JULIET and WEST SIDE STORY in tandem. We learned early on that his degree was in theatre and he would be taking over the school drama club. Prior to Mr. Allen, plays were directed by everything from pregnant Phys.Ed. teachers to Home Ec. flunkies, but never anyone who knew anything about the drama. They chose things like TIME OUT FOR GINGER or those awful ‘high school plays’ written “for a cast of thirty or more between the ages of 12- 16″. I had never seen any great drama, yet I knew about Broadway and that there was a world of professional theatre out there somewhere east of our fetid little town. I became mesmerized by this energetic teacher. He tended to talk down to us those first weeks, feigning shock we had never read O’Neill, Williams, Miller nor ever seen any professional theatre. His quasi-condescending attitude turned many of the students against him. They resented being treated as uninformed and unworldly, but it worked in the opposite way for me.
He would mention a play or an author, and I was at the Cleveland Public Library that following Saturday morning, taking home volumes to pour over. The following Monday I was ready to use my new-found wealth of literary wisdom, and instead he would name-drop another author or cite a different play. And in the frustration to prepare for his classes, an incredible new world of literature was being opened to me. We were all starving, and I was one of the few being nourished by his teaching method. Years later I realized he was conducting ours class like a college course, and these West Buttfokians had no idea how lucky we were to experience real education. It was something that never existed before in our provincial school system.
He appealed to me in a way I had no words for. He was able to tap into a natural curiosity that made me want to know about those things I should have been interested in. I didn’t realize that much of what I was doing to keep up with his class, I was doing to please him, much the way you strive to gain the attention and favor of someone you are falling in love with. A few of us in class were now Mr. Allen fans and he’d already begun his silent campaign to draft us, one by one. We were tapped to volunteer doing the ugly girl jobs of theatre production: set building, publicity, tickets sales and the like. He gave the roles in his first production to mostly juniors and seniors, which was how it had always been done before.
By coming together, all of us seeking his attention formed what I later referred to as “Allen’s Misfits”. He had gathered all the psychologically wounded and “ The Group” was formed, two girls and three guys: Deb Mae, Billy, Selma, Eddie and me. Even though he was newly married with a young baby, we were the ones he took out on weekends. We went to plays at The Cleveland Playhouse, college productions all over northeastern Ohio, and afterwards to restaurants where we dissected what we had seen, discussed what life meant, and what we planned to do when we got the hell out of West Buttfok. We none of us dated, because we were all of us dating Mr. Allen and I think he knew that we’d fallen in love with him, long before any in The Group had an inkling. Suddenly my life - all our lives - had meaning and there was purpose to the Universe. It was uncanny the mark his influence had made on his collection of faithful followers.
While he finished his Masters’ Thesis the following summer, his young wife directed a summer children’s theatre program where we all got a chance to act ourselves. We were bubbling with the prospects of our junior year when we would be ready to audition for some real theatre. We were doing Moliere’s TARTUFFE and ANASTASIA. I knew neither play, but I just assumed, because he thought so much of me, of course I would get good roles, and he did not disappoint. I got the title role of Tartuffe, and the Yul Brenner role in Anastasia, where I got to smoke real cigarettes on stage. How cool was that, and how cool was I? No more than a year before, each of us had been looked down upon as unimportant, out-of-it geeks, and we were now just about as glamorous as you could get in West B. – that is, in our cliquish estimation. We were all planning on what colleges we would attend and who would get out of Ohio first. Mr. Allen was enjoying it too, because as much good as he had done for each of us as individuals, he needed our unbridled adulation in order to be satisfied himself. There are negative effects to these symbiotic student/teacher relationships as well.
The summer before our senior year, one weekend in late June, he took us out because he had something important to ask us. It was wonderful news for him. He’d been offered a teaching position, creating a drama department in a small college in southern Ohio. The contract was to begin that fall. He actually asked if we wanted him to turn it down so that he could remain with us for our senior year. We already had a season planned. I remember feeling like a door had been slammed shut on my future. Deb Mae and Selma sat there bawling uncontrollably. No matter how much it would hurt, we knew we could not hold him back from this opportunity because of our selfishness. We told him we would be disappointed if he didn’t take the job. The Group would go on without him somehow. It was a sad, sad end to our summer. We learned they’d hired a new drama teacher who was from California, but we’d still have each other to get by, regardless of this new outsider.
Mr. Allen came back for our first show, which meant the world to us. We were doing THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, just like he’d planned for us. I was playing Mr. Frank. He saw the show opening night, and came to say goodbye before the matinée the next afternoon. I remember him coming into the boy’s dressing room. I wanted to cry. It was heartbreaking and for some reason it seemed harder to say goodbye than it had been the first time. I hoped to be able to speak with him privately, to thank him for all he’d done for me. I watched him in the mirror as he talked back to my reflection, avoiding a face to face. It was probably easier that way. I can’t remember what was said. I turned to see him walk out the door and got this feeling in my gut that I would never see him again.
And I didn’t. None of us did. Less than two months later, his wife called Selma. He’d had a heart attack, suddenly, a massive one. He died instantly. He was gone at age 28. All of us were devastated. We drove to the funeral that weekend, but it was still impossible to comprehend. The Group stood together, literally holding one another up, feeling as though something incomprehensibly enormous was missing. We came back to West Buttfok in a near silent automobile. But yes, somehow we still managed to have a great time our last year together. We went out in our Group as we always had before . We did some good theatre, despite the loony woman who attempted to replace him. We dedicated our last production together to Mr. Allen’s memory. His death forced us to mature individually and as The Group, but it never was quite the same. We missed him, the man who found five outcasts and made them each into something wonderful through the magic of theatre.