Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Years after the fact, I can joke about high school theater and its devout practitioners. The drama we threw ourselves into and created, our over-emoting, our line-quoting, all the ways we fell in love with our own adolescent performance. It's an easy target. But yesterday I attended the funeral of my beloved English teacher, play director, and speech coach Martin Carter, and was hit hard in the heart by how important and wonderful that freaky funny little microcosm was and is.

Maybe things are different in urban and suburban schools, where the stakes are higher, competition stiffer, and the top talent really might go on to be professional actors. But in the homogeneous middle-of-nowhere small-town school where physical prowess reigns and strict gender codes keep kids brutally in their place, the theater department is a rare refuge. A place to escape and a place to pretend to be someone else. To try on other lives for size. To construct another time and place to inhabit where you are implicitly important to the story. And Mr. Carter was genius at bringing us in and making us feel like we mattered.

He had a lot of pain in his life--he'd been orphaned young and raised in a foster home, and his only son was in and out of trouble and died tragically--and the way he carried that was neither a hard bitter scar or a needy open wound, but a steady pulse of sensitivity, the openness of his marvelously expressive elastic face, his slouchy, purposeful stride. It fueled his drive to make life better for the kids he could reach every day. He was a magnet for misfits, nerds, smart kids, shy kids, weirdos, kids that were or felt different in any way.

He had a big classroom next to both an outside exit and the door backstage—a gateway and escape. In it he taught literature by day, coached speech practice after school, and gathered us for play rehearsals in the evening. Mr. Carter's room was like a living room for me and my friends and our fellow speech-and-drama nerds. It was where you could go to find each other, to take a break, to eat lunch in his office in peace. In the back of the room were three closet-sized dressing rooms, in which I smoked my first and last puff of clove cigarette (I fell down from the headrush). In the makeup room, our faces were slicked with thick sticks of stage makeup, a heavy perfumey grease that was near impossible to wash off. Newly crow's-feeted and cheekboned, we blinked at ourselves in the wall of mirrors, trying to touch without smearing the new faces on our faces, these garish caricatures of adulthood: Is this what I'll look like? In the costume closet, surrounded by decades of discarded prom dresses, we turned off the lights, gathered around my Ouija board and summoned spirits who spelled badly and alluded vaguely to ominous deaths.

No matter how ridiculous, we were always welcome.

When we would go down to the Twin Cities for the state speech meets and one-act play competitions, or I would visit Amy who had moved to a cushy suburb, it shocked me how well-trained and equipped other schools were. The immaculate sets, the cushy auditoriums and classrooms, the students' exquisite poise--even the techies scurrying around were super-cool, dressed to the alternative nines. We were a ragtag northern bunch, with our nice clothes from the Fargo mall, rayon dresses and teal button-ups and cheap shoes from Baker's, many of us still permed and mulleted. I people-watched with awe and fascination and occasional seizures of inferiority. We were so small.

But Mr. Carter elevated us all. Everyone knew him, and he knew everyone; he was sort of a legend. And he took for granted that we were as good as or better than anyone else there, no matter where we or they came from. And, it turned out, we were. He loved to win, yes, and he often did--but mostly he just loved us. The real prize, always, was him.

Photo from the Enterprise from 1993, the year he technically retired--yet his funeral was full of current high school students. "I see Mr. Carter pretty much every day," one girl told me. Teacher for life.


Amy said...

His room as refuge and escape! Exactly.
Loved this.

Anonymous said...

Chelsey, how would I understand my childhood without you? I don't know if it's because the last time I truly excelled at something was under Mr. Carter's and Mr. Burkman's wings (1-100s at state! :), or if it's because you've captured such a sweet, complicated time in our lives, but I'm devastated after reading this. Where would we be without Mr. Carter's refuge by the stage? Thank you for this remembrance. Sarah

sat said...

what a beautiful, glorious tribute to a beloved mentor. I can only imagine how proud your words would make him.