High School Musical – the flashback therapy session

My older daughter is all into the theater. Which is expected – she’s brilliant, dramatic, and her parents met on stage. I joke that she’s more her father’s child than mine, but when she delves into theater stuff, I can see a portion of my teen years in her. I had some of my best times as a teen in a local theater, hanging out with friends, making cookie dough sandwiches out of Entenmann’s soft little chocolate chip cookies and cookie dough. Ah, the days when I didn’t gain weight instantly.

Those theater memories are good ones.

The one time I got into my high school’s spring musical…well, it was a bit surreal.

See, I’m pretty sure that the teacher in charge of all things theater at our school, who we’ll call Mr. D,  kinda disliked me. I don’t know why. I just thought there must be some reason I couldn’t get into a single play. I couldn’t even get a place working backstage (I nearly did once, only to be told that myself and the other student weren’t needed, leave now.) But the spring of my junior year, I auditioned for “Superman: the Musical”.

Yes, it was as campy as it sounds.

Yes, I was desperate.

Amazingly, I made it into the show. Because Mr. D wasn’t choosing the dancers, he had hired a choreographer to be in charge of the dancers, and she chose me to be one of the eight dancers.

I was ecstatic. I could prove my worth. I was finally in a school production – our school was known for having great productions. And I knew I could dance – I had taken ballet since I was six. When the choreographer said to do a tour jete  I almost laughed. Tour jetes were my thing. I been doing those since I was 8. I had this.

I earned my spot as a dancer fair and square. I was in the A Capella choir as well, one you had to audition for, so there were no issues with me being part of a chorus. Our choir teacher was in charge of all singing. She knew I could manage. I had no lines, so all I had to do was make appropriate facial expressions of “Ooo” and “Ahhh” during the right times. I had been part of theater productions elsewhere, so was familiar with stage directions. The choreographer was fantastic and fun to work with.

This should have been easy. This should have been an enjoyable experience.

Needless to say, it became probably the #1 spot of “things I never want to relive again”.

I began to think that Mr D was mad at the choreographer for choosing me. Little things would come up, but I’d blow them off. The dancers didn’t really deal with Mr. D much in the beginning of rehearsals. We went off with the choreographer and worked our butts off learning several dances for the show. But as we got together more as a full cast, the more I felt that this guy just didn’t like me, just because I was there. I could do nothing right. We had to come up with an “everyday outfit from the 60’s” to wear, so with permission, I delved into my mom’s bin of clothes, picking an outfit she in fact, did wear in the 1960’s. I presented it to the director, who yelled at me. “That’s NOT an outfit from the 60’s! That’s OBVIOUSLY an outfit from the 80’s!” Because nothing says morale booster like being publicly chastised in front of the entire cast. I tried to argue that it was, in fact, an outfit directly from the 1960’s. He refused to believe me and sent me off in disgust. Another cast member had spare outfits from her mom and loaned me one. My mother was a bit insulted when she heard that he discounted her 60’s outfit, a little light blue mini skirt and top outfit. I can’t even remember what the loaned outfit looked like, just that it passed Mr. D’s check.

And then spring break came. Spring break, where we were asked to volunteer time to come in and help build/paint sets. Something I would have been eager to do, except that at the time, my mom was also a student, and our spring break was different than hers. I had a little brother and sister who needed babysitting while Mom was at school. I told him that I couldn’t make it because I was needed at home. I thought he understood.

I was so very wrong about that.

One night, at the end of the spring break week, I ran up to Walgreen’s. It was dark out, because I had to wait for my mom to get home from her class before I could go get whatever it was I needed. I walked up there, got my stuff, went to get in line and spotted Mr. D already in line. Honestly, I hoped he wouldn’t notice me, just because I didn’t want to interact with him. But he spotted me as he checked out. And as he went to leave, he turned to me and in the middle of the Walgreen’s check out stands, he started to berate me publicly. “I can’t believe you have the nerve to be here!” he went off  at me suddenly.

I just blinked, the proverbial deer in headlights, slightly confused as to why I couldn’t be at Walgreen’s.

“Everyone’s been working hard all week except YOU! And yet here you are! Shopping!” or something like that.

I quickly realized he was yelling at me for not showing up that week to any of the set builds. The voluntary set builds. That I informed him I could make because of family obligations.  “But I told you, I had to babysit my brother and sister.”

“If you’re supposed to be babysitting, why are you here?”

I was so confused. It was 9 o’clock at night. Obviously no set building was happening because he was there in the store with me. “My mom got home at 8:30.”

“A likely story.” he sneered before leaving in a huff.

The four adults gaping at us in the store didn’t intervene as this six foot plus grown adult male shouted angrily at a five foot one 16 year old girl who actually looked younger than her years.

The cashier looked at me, stunned. “What was that all about?”

I wasn’t sure, and I said so.

But it wasn’t over. Because as I left the store and started to cut across the parking lot, a brown Bronco came blazing up at me. As I tried to scurry out of its way, Mr. D pulled up next me and yell at me some more about commitments or whatnot before peeling out of there.

I was shaking and honestly, a bit scared. The man was acting unhinged. I got myself home as quickly as possible, worried that he’d follow me. Yet I didn’t tell anyone about it.

The day back at school, I was almost ill, knowing I’d have to face that man. And face him I would have to. Myself and one other girl who didn’t make it to the voluntary set building were summoned. There Mr. D sat, surrounded by several of his favorite students, my peers, who stood there and nodded along with him as he berated us for not showing up for set building.

I again pointed out that I told him I had to babysit my siblings. He refused to believe me. “Call my mom then, she’ll tell you.” I said.

He made the other girl cry.

I had figured out his game in that moment. His tactic was public humiliation and bullying. He wanted me to quit. I wasn’t going to quit. I worked too hard at that point to just walk away, and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. I did my part, and did it well, and finished the play.

But he did win in that I never bothered to audition for another play at my high school again. I also didn’t audition for anything theater-esque until my third year of college. Luckily, college theater was a healing point, as our director – ironically, another Mr. D – was an amazing man who brought out the best in us while being patient and encouraging.

Twenty-plus years later, I still don’t know why that man had such a big issue with me. I was actually a decent teenager, I worked hard, I showed up on time for every rehearsal except one (because I was home sick, and those were the school rules – if you missed school, you’d miss any extra-curricular activities.) Four days a week, three hours at a time, I danced my ass off, just like the other seven girls. By the end of the play, we had shin splints, but we hit our marks every time no matter what. So what was it that offended him so much? It wasn’t because I missed the voluntary set build. No, that was just an excuse I think to go after me. I don’t know, I’ll probably never know.

What I do know is this –

At sixteen, my life wasn’t sunshine and giggles. My parents were going through an ugly divorce. I was going through a lot of stuff. I could have used a great, supportive, male role model in my life. Instead, this so-called teacher bullied and belittled me, in what I realized now was an abusive manner. And I sort of let him get away with it. I should have told my mom – she would have had his ass on a silver platter. But part of me felt that she couldn’t do anything. Part of me didn’t want to poke the bear. Just get through it and move on.

I see now that my mom could have done something. She could have possibly prevented him from bullying other students after me by putting him on the school’s radar. Instead, he continued to be the grand overlord of his little theater kingdom. Or maybe it was just me that sparked such a negative reaction in him and he was wonderful to every other student he ever encountered. Part of me doubts that.

So now, as my daughter gets into the world of high school theater, I’m keeping a sharp eye on things. Because NO ONE is going to treat my child like that and get away with it. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t let them get to her either. But history will not repeat itself. Not in this or any other circumstance.

And Mr. D, if you read this – as a mother now, I just want to say  – How could you? How could you be so awful to a sixteen year old girl who was going through enough crap in her life? She didn’t deserve it. She didn’t deserve your anger and belittling. A girl who spent years being teased and bullied? Yes, you added to that. You, a grown-ass adult, acted worse than any other high school aged person did to her. No child should have been treated the way you treated me then. You were supposed to be a role model. Shame on you Mr. D, shame on you.

PS – the sixteen year old girl in me wants to say “Fuck you and the high horse you rode in on.” I shall have words with her about forgiveness and being the bigger person.

sixteen-ish year old me. It was the 80s, that was the biggest my hair would get.
sixteen-ish year old me. she had an attitude as well.