My high school drama teacher died last month. Mrs Gensler was one of the few people who helped lay the foundation that made my theatre future possible. She breathed life into me for my four years of high school. She protected me. She was my surrogate mother. And then she wasn’t. Her memorial was yesterday and I struggled for days debating whether I had a duty to attend. It wasn’t a simple up or down question because our relationship wasn’t a simple story.
It all began with an audition. 12 year old me walked in to a classroom at Shorewood High School to audition for the role of 16 year old Louisa in The Fantastics. After my audition the director inquired about my school. When she found out I was only in eighth grade the door to Louisa closed, but she instead unlocked the literal door to the high school theatre and offered me a future on the stage. I didn’t live in Shorewood, but since I was a student of color living in Milwaukee I qualified for the 220 busing program that was in place to further integration in the suburbs. That August at the ripely tender age of 13 I commenced my Shorewood High School journey, one intrinsically linked to my relationship with Mrs Gensler.
Over the next four years I would take the stage under her tutelage playing Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet, the Narrator in Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Essie Miller in Ah Wilderness, The Witch in Sleeping Beauty, Ruth in Pirates of Penzance, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, and culminating with Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. In between she guided me through my development personally even as I ventured outside of the school to perform professionally at Skylight, Melody Top, King Richard’s Faire and more. She gave me the room to grab a bigger hunk of the world. She never handed me anything, I had to work for every one of my roles. What she did do was create opportunities for me to expand and enrich my being. She didn’t always agree with my choices, but she never denied me the room to make them. It was because of her that I felt emboldened enough to conceptualize, choreograph and direct the AFS Showcase my senior year. Her approval was the brass ring I was seeking. I remember her coming to one of the technical rehearsals. She watched with her trademark discrening eyes and kept almost everything to herself, until the finale number. The last number was the big montage from the movie Fame. I had choreographed individual layers of dance performance and in the last sequaence brought them all together onto the stage in rotating circles. I remember she slowly and deliberately sat forward in her seat, pointed her bejeweled finger at the light rack and said, “You have to pop them.” She told me that when bringing a show to it’s fruition you need a visual marker. When you have nothing left you that’s when you give the audience everything. So at the end of finale song and dance number we threw all the lights high, for just a second, creating an explosion of light on the stage to punctuate the final note. It was magical. Simple magic. And I’ve been trying to create more simple magic ever since.
“When you have nothing left that’s when you give the audience everything.” ~ @MissLori
That was the first part of our story, my relationship with Mrs Gensler. The second part was far from simple and devoid of magic, which is why when I received news of her death I was not okay. I wasn’t sure what I felt. Numb, I guess, but also embarrassed. Embarrassed because I hadn’t spoken with her in years. I went back to the school when my kids, or maybe it was just my first kid. Yeah, I think it was just Skyler in a stroller. Probably when I was in town to tour as Sojourner Truth for First Stage. That would make sense. The memory is not hazy, patchy would be a better word. That’s the curse of the past. It’s like a video that’s been recorded over one too many times. What I do know is that I went to the school to visit, the only time since graduating college. I went to show off my kid. To reconnect? I don’t know, but I do know I went with my heart open and left with it closed, or bruised really. I went and regardless of what I was hoping to find I certainly didn’t expect to experience what I ultimately did. What was that exactly? I felt like I was considered a nuisance. I was dismissed. No negated. No words were spoken. It was all body language, and a lack of words. I felt like I was an imposition, and so I left.
“That’s the curse of the past. It’s like a video that’s been recorded over one too many times.” ~ @MissLori
I hoped someone would care, but they didn’t know me. I wasn’t anyone to them. I was another era. I was just dust on their wall, so I left and no one noticed because I didn’t matter anymore. I never went back, at least not like that. I went years later to see my niece perform when she was in high school, but I never went back as an alumni to say “Hi.” Nothing, because I was hurt. I was more than hurt, I was devastated. I had thought I was special to her. No, I hadn’t come around when I was in college. No, I didn’t keep in touch, but I was the kid. She was the grownup. I was supposed to be special to her. That meant she was supposed to leave the light on for me. Right? Yeah, no. Relationships don’t work that way.
A year or two into college I vaguely remember being told some second or third hand story that Mrs Gensler was mad at me because she heard that I had called her Barbara. I don’t remember who told me that. It was crap. I would never have used her first name. Hell, I’m a 46 years old divorced mother of 3 and I still wouldn’t call her by her first name. She was and will forever be Mrs Gensler. But even though it was ridiculous and utterly untrue it doesn’t mean someone didn’t pedal that narrative to her. It doesn’t mean she didn’t believe it. And a year or two after that, when I returned to the school to see my sister perform in The Wiz, there was tension. I don’t have any memory recall of interactions, not even a sketch or a whisper. But my mother remembers there were words, a difference of opinion, there was difficulty. Maybe that explains why Mrs Gensler dismissed me years later. Maybe or maybe not. Pretty sad either way. I don’t know. What I do know is at the time I came to visit with my child I got really hurt. Then when I came back for my niece’s performance that hurt turned to anger and resentment. And then more years later, with the notification of her passing, I was left numb. Not unfeeling, numb. Paralyzed. Unclear.
I started to feel really guilty, like if I had just been more grown-up, swallowed my pride, ignored my own ego, I would have been able to go back and get over the crap and re-connect. Maybe it was disloyal of me not to do so, but as the days have washed past a thought has become clearer for me. Maybe that’s not the right description. Whatever. What I have come to learn since 2015 , or come to believe after battling unspeakable foes for myself and my children, is that life is really a book series. When we complete a volume we close that book and start the next section of life, on a fresh page, in a new volume. And that’s okay. It’s okay to close the book on a section, a chapter, an era. The experience doesn’t have to have closure, just be closed. You close the book. Let a relationship be done when it is done, then turn your attention to the next path of your life. It’s okay.
“Let a relationship be done when it is done, then turn your attention to the next path of your life. It’s okay.” ~ @MissLori
For most of my time on this earth I had thought of life as one big book with a multitude of chapters. It was heavy load to carry around with me in the proverbial backpack of my mind, that got heavier as time filled my pages. But the bigger problem with that approach was that I had a tendency to riffle back through my pages, revisiting relationships in search of elusive explanation, clarity, closure. But those are false promises, demons disguised as guardian angels. An unresolved or troubled past in particular, is not recalled clearly nor does it give up its’ secrets willingly or completely. This was why my back pack of history was so heavy, dragging me down instead of propping me up. No, I needed to close a book and leave it closed, with the past protected, or to protect me from it.
“I needed to close a book and leave it closed, with the past protected, or to protect me from it.” ~ @MissLori
It’s okay for me to have had four years with Mrs Gensler, then close the book and walk away. I don’t have to feel bad about that. Sure some other crap happened or didn’t happen in the years that followed, but that’s in a different book and barely a footnote or a scribble. It has nothing to do with the four year long book of our real relationship, and that is all I need to remember. During those four years, even through skirmishes like her being mad at me for leaving to do The Wiz and not staying to do A Chorus Line, and my being mad at her for not casting me as Eva Peron in the Shorewood Players production of Evita, we were bonded. Most significantly, at the end of my high school career, she was there. When my brother died she let me hide out in her office. When my mother and I were fighting she let me sit in pain and peace. And when I came back from my Summer in NYC to recover from walking pneumonia, she helped me follow my gut. She listened to my internal struggle and ultimately gave me permission to throw out my college plan, transferring in to Carnegie Mellon one week into the first semester despite the fact that I was already enrolled and had my belongings trunk at in another state at SUNY Purchase. She didn’t tell me what to do, she just created a safe place for me to come to understand my own true feelings. She was there. It was all real. And then it was over.
“She didn’t tell me what to do, she just created a safe place for me to come to understand my own true feelings.” @MissLori
One of the reasons I was so hurt when I went back is because it negated how special I had thought I was when I had been her student. I remembered that while I was in school alumni would come back to visit and she would welcome them with open arms and speak so fondly of and to them. But she didn’t do that with me, so it made me feel like everything else was a lie, or a false memory, or that I had been duped. I am giving those years back to myself with acceptance. I may not have been her all-time favorite. Maybe I wasn’t the alumni she would speak fondly of to her new students. Maybe she didn’t think of me at all, but when I was her student I was special. Those four years I was her special student, and that’s enough. The book closed a long time ago, but it’s still relevant. It’s still touching, and it is absolutely worthy of acknowledgement in whatever way works for me. But I don’t have to open it to honor it.
“I am giving those years back to myself with acceptance.” ~ @MissLori
I didn’t go to her memorial. I decided that my book didn’t require an addendum. It closed a long time ago. Instead I quietly paged through pictures, thought warm thoughts, and bid her a final farewell of thanks, respectfully and alone. And that’s okay.