By my junior year in high school, I was pretty much on my own. My home held 3 bedrooms, but only one was ever occupied: mine. It could be terribly lonely at times, especially late at night, after I’d turned off the house lights and locked up, and silently tucked myself into bed, in the last bedroom at the end of the hall. But these nights when it was just me, just myself, and no one else….I also felt the most safe. Oh, the irony in some of our memories, huh?
By the time I found my way into Mr. Prill’s room in September of 1991, I was one weary, exhausted, overwhelmed, lonely, child-soldier, still reeling from the many previous years of fighting the secret Viet-mom War on my home lands.
Those damn “acting/theatre exercises” where Mr. Prill would somehow trick us into revealing our naked souls…oh, how they worked on me! And how I unknowingly NEEDED that space Mr. Prill would hand to us, saying, “Here’s the scene: how do you feel?”
I’d spent so many years running from my feelings, this was the first time someone said to me, “No- don’t run! Sit here! Feel! Laugh! Cry! Sing! Fall apart! I’ll be right here for you (sipping my Diet Coke) when you’re done.”
And he always was.
With the long rectangular flourescent classroom lights turned off, and our faces softly glowing from a small lamp left on in the back, we would take the stage solo…eventually stripping away each of our carefully-crafted High School Images, until nothing was left on stage but the rawness of a newborn in the form of an almost-adult. Then the bell would ring, signaling the change of classes, the lights would flip on with a painful brightness, and there would be Mr. Prill, with the other kids, perched upon a desk in the back, like a single scholar of many, wiping his tears away.
Mr.Prill taught us how to live with our hearts on our sleeves, despite any misgivings or scabby distrust built from years gone by. He taught us how to do this, by living as such himself. Nothing seemed too scary or too much when that stout little man was standing there, piercing your skull with his gaze, a smirk flash, a nudge of his glasses up the nose, and an attitude that always seemed to say “Come on! I’ll do it if you do it!!”
Loneliness did not exist in Mr. Prill’s world. Blackness did not exist in Mr. Prill’s world. Cruelty, abuse, and jerks were simply…..non-existent. Quite a magical feat, when you think about it, really. I wonder if he knew what he was providing in addition to the obvious academic programs?
It was in this space, Mr. Prill’s Space, that I believe most of us theatre geek kids awakened to the possibility that there was more to life than…our own feelings??? More than trends and sports and fashion-must-haves and that cute classmate you cannot bring yourself to talk to???
Mr. Prill gave us a space, not where he’d tie on our wings himself, rather: he told us to believe in ourselves, and led us to the end of the branch….and then with that smirky grin, he’d whisper to one of us, each message customized to fit the baby wren: “Fly! You can do it! Just try!!” And sometimes we fell. But you know what? The landing wasn’t so bad: Mr. Prill would be there at the bottom, catching us, laughing at whatever mistake we’d made that was SURELY GOING TO HAUNT US FOREVER…but had merely tickled his funny bone. As a sage teacher, I’m sure our worst nightmares were things he’d already witnessed a thousand times already. I wonder if that’s why he was easy to laugh? That laugh. That cackle. That silly, funny, never-gonna-grow-up Peter Pan cackle of glee. Mr. Prill.
I spent three years following Mr. Prill around like a needy sidekick duckling; a manic Ed McMahon to his witty Johnny Carson; a scared & hungry Scooby Doo to his sleek, smooth-talking Fred. I soaked in his lectures about movies, actors, actresses, and what makes it all great or all terrible.
Planet 9 From Outter Space? SO BAD- we have to watch it! Once a year!
Into the Woods, original Broadway cast, recorded on a VHS tape? SO GOOD we have to watch it! Once a year!
He loved Sally Field, hated Julia Roberts. Loved Neil Simon, less excited about Shakespeare. Loved improv! LOVED IMPROV!! IMPROV IMPROV IMPROV!! I digress.
‘Tis my belief that all teachers can be broken down into 2 simple categories: The teacher whose voices fades once the grades are turned in, or the teacher whose words catapult far beyond the public school system world, landing somewhere deep within the student’s Soul-Garden.
The latter types, as their voices string together the academia with the soul, will reverberate throughout one’s life, like the first-dropped stone that begat the ever-widening ripple in the pond, eventually resulting in visual rings of difference, across the entire surface of the water.
These special teachers, they approach the younger people in a way that leaves with the student a desire to touch base with their Inner Self, perhaps beginning that ever-important Life-Long Inner Dialogue with our Self, about our own True Intentions, our transparency, our hidden agendas, & perhaps even our spiritual evolvement.
After all is said an done…some blessed students of these blessed teachers…well…
We never forget when that first stone was thrown in, we never forget who changed the quality of our existence forever. Ya know. We never forget that moment we first found ourself.
Keeping this in mind, here’s the memory I want to share:
April. 1993. It was a Thursday night, late, about 10:15. We’d just plodded through a late night dress-rehearsal for Cyrano de Bergerac. I remember coming out the back door of the old Jeff theatre, skipping down the back stairs two-at-a-time, into that narrow asphalt-alley, where the Band Dorks would keep their trailer parked between field trips or marches (whatever those band people did).
Normally students were NOT allowed to park there…but exceptions were made after 7pm, if we were sneaky enough. I recall feeling my usual mix of exhaustion meets anxiety, as I said a silent prayer that my run-down ‘85 Honda Civic hatchback, would be a good girl that night, and she’d “turn over” when trying to start her engine up in the cool spring air. That Honda was my pride and joy. She was just….old and ready for an overhaul that was beyond my “waitress budget”.
I was thrilled when the old engine revved up beneathe my feet on only the 3rd try, and as I peeled out of the parking lot (is there any other way for a senior to exit?), I recall yelling out the window to my castmates that were just starting to trickle out of the theatre, “WHOOHOOOO!!!” or some such meaningful thing.
I zipped home that night, never completely stopping, as sometimes it was hard to get the clutch out of first gear once it was in there. So I was trying to make do with just slowing down enough for 2nd gear. (Safety first!)
My house was less than a mile away, give or take, and while that might not seem very far…in an old stick-shift hatch-back, there were endless opportunities lying in wait that might force me to slow down too much, thereby downshifting into 1st gear….and resulting in stalling out my engine. My 18-year old answer, of course, was to just JUST KEEP ACCELERATING, JUST KEEP ACCELERATING, JUST KEEP ACCELERATING!
That drive was yet another successful endeavor pulled off using my brilliant Acceleration Solution as I sped south on 18th, blew through the yellow light at Teal Rd…letting off the gas pedal just a bit as I hooked a sharp right at the “4-Way Pause” signs at 18th and Beck Lane. Almost home! Engine still going!! JUST KEEP ACCELERATING!!!
The expertise with which I careened my metal container of hopes into my narrow driveway, squealing to stop just inches from the corner of our car port, is a talent I hope my children will never develop. I threw the stick shift into 1st gear as I removed the key, and set the hand brake. (First gear was for parking only, dudes.) Grabbed my back pack, my stacks of books, highlighted script with notes scrawled in corners, and sped through the surrounding blackness as if I wasn’t afraid at all.
As usual, the back door was unlocked, and I let myself right in. CLICK! I locked the door. CLICK! I turned on the kitchen lights. CLICK! I turned on the living room lights. CLICK! CLICK CLICK!! I turned on almost every light in the house, my nightly routine. I’m sure it was my way of trying to “fill up” the empty house. I dropped my books on the couch, and headed to the rusted black metal mailbox that hung on the side of our house, just outside the front door. (You know the type.)
I was hoping for a letter from one of my pen pals. I had 4 at the time, and devoured every word of every letter they’d send. Letters from friends are fantastic company in an empty house. I had to use both of my hands to get all of the mail out, and even then, I kept finding another piece every time I swept my hand across the bottom. I picked up the spilled pieces, and tried to balance it all in my arms, while holding open the screen door, and avoiding the broken step that had a tendency to toss our visitors head over heels.
I remember it crossing my mind that my mother must not have been home in several days, as I flicked through the many envelopes with seemingly important stamped messages across them. “OVERDUE NOTICE!” “LAST NOTICE” “PAYMENT OVERDUE”. I quickly shut the front door, locking it, turning off the light, and flipped through the thick stack of white envolopes and junk mail coupon books, looking for my name in familiar handwriting, hoping for something to read to keep me company that night.
Then I saw it.
I didn’t know what I was looking at, at first. My name was typed. My address- also typed.
That was weird. Me and my pen pals? We wrote letters the old fashioned way: BY HAND…so this was like, totally gag-me-with-a-fork-weird. I glanced at the return address. It read: AMDA- American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City.
As with most unexpected situations in my life then and since, I was immediately confused. So of course I had to read that again.
Yes! That is the school I had just auditioned for a month back! So that meant this must be….the “The Acceptance Letter”? I don’t know why it never occurred to me that it would be anything but an Acceptance Letter. (Ah, the ego of Youth!)
I don’t remember ripping it open, nor what I did with my books, or my script, perhaps a bomb went off in my left penny loafer– I DON’T REMEMBER. However, I vividly remember the next moments:
The letter read, in parts: “Dear Tammy–snip–We are pleased–snip–to let you know that you have been selected–snip–Fall program October 1993”.
Again! With my confusion!! So I had to read it again. And again. And that’s when I started putting 2 and 2 together like a blind man without fingers….
MY NAME- YES!!
OCTOBER OF ’93!!
HOLY CRAP- YES!!!
In two seconds flat, I had spun on my loafer heel, unlocked the front door, and hopped back into that little blue roach of a vehicle. (I coulda sworn, my footprints were leaving a trail of glitter.)
And wouldn’t ya know it? For the first time since I’d owned the old girl, HER ENGINE turned over and started up on the first try.
Time for another high-speeding, careless driving trip back up Beck Lane and and then north on 18th Street this time. (Stupid high school drivers.)
As I approached the intersection at 18th & Teal, going the opposite way than 6 minutes prior, I was able to make out… about a block away… the many figures moving around under the massive lights of the theatre loading dock. YES! I MADE IT!! I thought to myself, as I youthfully and stupidly shunned the suggestion of my red light at the intersection, not daring to fall below 20 mph, thereby taking the chance of having to go into 1st gear. It felt as though my Civic had only two wheels on the ground as I veered right at the tiny intersection by the back of the theatre, and then immediately to the left, slamming on my brakes mere yards from my thronging and my darling frightened-for-their-lives friends.
In hindsight, they were probably desperately clinging to one another because some hellcat-on-wheels had just come barreling out of the black night, and seemed to be targeting their exact location at a high speed, with little to no control. And….I might’ve also been laying on my horn as I wildly rolled in, for full affect, as theatre geeks are wan to do. But, of course I thought of none of this, as I proceeded to burn the rubber on my tires slamming to a full stop mere yards from their delicate flesh-and-bone bodies.
I immediately jumped out of my disabled Smurf-mobile, waving the letter from AMDA high above my head, as en masse, they ALL JUMPED BACK SHRIEKING: “AUUUUGH!!”.
Their response completely startled me. “AUGGH!! WHAAAT??” I screamed back at my motley crew of chosen-family, blinded by my headlights.
But, once again, the close brush with death had every last one of us high schoolers laughing our fool heads off, and I could barely get out words between the guffaws and jostling of friends.
That’s when Mr. Prill suddenly appeared at the fringe of our gaggle. That’s right! I suddenly remembered why I came back to schoool!! I hurtled my body through the tangle of teens towards him, like when there’s only one more yard to the touchdown, and in the last play, the team does that trick play kooky stuff, where some massive athlete grabs the ball and is basically Shot-Put up over the defensive line, and into TOUCHDOWN TERRITORY!! So I made like a 300 pound linebacker with the grace of a ballerina in cement boots, and did like 3 somersaults over the gang to get to him. (Not really. But I was able to get close enough to him to grab him by his stained, cuffed-up shirt sleeve.) My excitement was far too much for me to contain. I held out the letter to him, and said with far too much diaphragm support since there were no “back rows” to hear me– only Mr. Prill’s face 10 inches from my own: “MR. PRILL, I MADE IT!! I’M GOING TO NEW YORK CITY!!”
My friends fell quiet as the news fell over their sweet ears. And then after some high-pitched clarification from all sides, like a crackle of thunder & lightening combination that announces a storm, a Life Celebration descended upon us all.
Mr. Prill dropped whatever he held in his arms, and in one sweep of an embrace, I was wholly engulfed in his barrel chest and surrounded by my friends, as they cheered with me, whooped with me, cried with me. I remember Mr. Prill and I trying to both hug each other and jump up and down together, which turned out to be a messy, if not well-intended, moment of comedy within itself. I was celebrated under the moonlight by my loved ones.
I drove myself home later, and tucked myself in snugly, with nothing but the memories I’d made that night. And they were plentiful.
I close my eyes and can see it now: how the joy in my eyes, became to be joy in his eyes; the proud tears streaming down my face, showed up proudly on his face as well. The loving glow from his face was so bright, he coulda lit up the whole south side of town. Mr. Prill was so SO PROUD OF ME. Like a true friend. Like a father.
Like a father.
Like a father. Hm. Yeah. That’s it, isn’t it? His pride in me filled some strange void in my soul, a void I’d always denied. His pride in me meant EVERYTHING. It still does.
There are many moments in one’s life. Moments we live and forget. Moments we live, but only the plot is recalled offhand. And then….there are those very significant times in one’s life, during those surprising plot-twist-changes of our personal journey, wherein you hear yourself say “My life will never be the same after this”.
Those moments when it rings loud and clear: “The End of What I’ve Known is Nigh….and The Beginning of A New Unknown ….is just around the bend.”
That is my memory I share with you all, the moment Tom Prill was beside me as I received the most significant piece of news in my 18 years so far. HE was the one there for me, with whom I could CELEBRATE. HE held me, while HE cried tears of joy. HE squealed with delight, over MY news. He was so proud of me.
His passing has been somewhat gut-wrenchingly, heart-opening for me. Because, while I took time long ago, to thank him & tell him I loved him….I never thanked him for being a father I never had. Oh, I know, “It was only 3 years? What do you mean? A mere grain of sand in the hourglass of life, woman!”
Try to imagine how very sacred & precious those 3 years must’ve felt to a child who hadn’t had that magic before. Or since.
Thank you, Mary. And thank you Cindy, Scott, Laura. I am indebted to you with gratitude. All my love, to all of you, forever.