I don't even know how to begin this post. I've known I would have to write it since I decided to start this series, but words seem to elude me. I know this post will be long, and I know I will cry through most of it, so I wasn't really sure I was up for writing it. I thought about putting this off to the last, but somehow that doesn't seem right. Sharp was never last.
Have you ever had a person in your life, whether for a brief moment or for many years, that simply was a defining moment in your life? I mean just by knowing them, being around them, having the privileged of being part of their world, they helped make you? I was that lucky.
I have searched for years to find a way to describe Gil Sharp. He was my teacher. He was my mentor. He was my friend. He was so much more though. I am not certain I can ever really describe what he was to me, I just know I would be a different person without having had him in my life.
Aside from my family I think Sharp was the most important person I had in my youth, and had one of the most profound influences on me. I know my mother would agree with that statement so I am not afraid to put it here. Sharp just is undeniable.
My first knowledge of Gil Sharp came through my brother. Sharp was the theater teacher at our high school, and since my brother was a year older than me, he got to meet Sharp first. Things went well at first. My brother was an excellent techie and took to the program easily, or so it seemed.
When UIL* came around there was a disagreement of sorts and Sharp tossed my brother out of his role in the UIL show. My mother, who has always fiercely defended her children when it came to bully teachers, went in and proceeded to rip Sharp a new one. My brother was reinstated, Sharp was publicly chastised, and I saw my High School theater career go up in smoke before my eyes.
I was devastated. I was certain that Sharp would hold the incident against me and my brother and we would never have a roll in the department. The only thing is, Sharp didn't work that way. He wasn't afraid of my mother, he wasn't angry at her either. He respected her. In fact by the time we graduated high school my mom and Sharp were friends.
So needless to say I was taken into the fold as soon as I got to high school and spent the next four years practically living at the theater. Sharp demanded excellence out of all of us and expected us to give 110% at the least. We put in more effort on shows than we did on anything else. Weekends, holidays, summer vacations, late nights, early mornings, you name it we were there.
He was tough. He was rough around the edges at times. I saw him scream at students, throw chairs, cuss at parents, throw temper tantrums, and be completely insane. I also saw great amounts of compassion and respect from him. I saw brilliance oozing out of him. I saw so much love and passion for his art and for his students.
Sharp used to tell us we were all replaceable. He would shake his fist at us saying he had the perfect one man show and all he needed was a wheel chair, a down spot, and an idiot who could memorize the lines. He would rant at us about not giving enough or not being dedicated. He would tell us we looked like we were waiting for a bus with fish for arms when we would be working on scenes.
Those are the moments, both funny and scary that a lot of people will remember. What I remember is him sitting next to me my senior year after we had most undeservedly lost in UIL. I remember sitting there staring at the stage realizing I would never perform there again. I remember feeling like a failure. I had given more than my all and it was just overlooked again. He sat there for the longest time saying nothing. We just sat there quietly. Then he patted my hand and gave me a small smile.
"You were wonderful." He said quietly. "You deserved an award and they were blind not to give it to you."
I gave him a small smile at his words. He was trying to make me feel better.
"I am so proud of you."
I can't remember if he had ever said that before, or if he ever said it again, but I remember him saying it at that moment. I will always remember that moment. I made him proud, and he meant that.
After I graduated I came back to see Sharp when I could. I didn't make it home from college all that often, but a trip up to the school to see Sharp was always top on my list. I would email him to ask for advice on classes and shows I was auditioning for. I would ask him for cuttings and wardrobe advice. I would just write him so I could hear a friendly voice. Someone who always believed in me.
My sophomore year I was back in Austin for spring break but I didn't go to see him. He was busy with UIL and I was busy with life. I had friends and a boyfriend and a job. I was busy. More time passed and I just was never home and never had time. I was busy. There was always next time.
Only there wasn't.
There never was a next time.
In March of 2003 I started getting emails and phone calls from old high school friends telling me Sharp was sick. He had pneumonia. He was in the hospital. It was bad. I kept thinking how bad could it be? It is pneumonia. People don't die from pneumonia anymore.
Only they do.
And he did.
I remember standing in the doorway of the student lounge at my college theater with tears in my eyes after I got the call. My college had a summer high school workshop that Sharp sent his favorites to so there were several of us going to school there for college. I didn't even know how to say it to the boys. I think they knew by the look on my face though. All I think I got out was his name before I was reduced to tears.
We got to the viewing early. It was a Thursday night and I had to drive all day to get there in time. You could see people clumping together and milling about quietly. There was a cluster of teary eyed teenagers numbering around 20, they were obviously his current UIL group. They looked so lost and shattered. We all did though. It had been four years almost since I was his student, and I felt so suddenly alone. What would I do without him there?
The number of people there that night was impressive. It was hard to tell since people sort of came and went as they pleased, but it was several hundred easily. I recognized a lot of them from school, but there were a lot I had no idea who they were.
The next day though was something that still makes me cry just to think about. His funeral was at noon, and school actually was dismissed so people could attend. Three teachers died while I was in high school and there was never this sort of response.
The church was large and two storied and by the time the service started every single pew was over filled. People stood along the walls and the aisles. The lobby was packed as was the hall outside. I am pretty sure a fire marshal would have shut us down if they had seen it, though I don't think one of us would have moved.
Whispers came through the aisles. Victoria who had been a senior when I graduated had flown in from England. Chris, who graduated the year before I came to school, had been in Chicago without money for a ticket down so a group had gotten together and bought his ticket. Sharp had been at his wedding only a few months before. Bayard who had been a senior with Victoria had apparently walked off set in LA and lost his job to be there. Someone even said that there were students there from his first year of teaching back in the late 70's.
Towards the end of the service the pastor, who was Bayard's mother, asked that Sharps current students, the Golden Mask Players as we were called, to please stand. In the front twenty shaking sobbing kids stood up, clinging to one another.
She then asked that all the M.A.F.I.A.** members present to stand. A large number of people stood. These people who's children had been Sharps students, some of whom were there without their kids, had come after many years to honor him. He was important to them too.
Then she asked all the former Golden Mask Players to stand. The sound of people standing was almost deafening. Only a handful of people remained in their seats. There were hundreds of us. Hundreds. We had flown in from all over the world, some of us at great cost, because none of us could miss saying goodbye.
It was then in that moment, looking around at all those people that I realized that I was not unique. I was not alone. All of these people felt the same way as I did. Sharp wasn't just my mentor. I wasn't the only person who he guided and loved. We were many. We were so many and so much better for having had him in our lives.
I will never think his death was fair. Not because I lost my friend and mentor. Not because I could no longer turn to him for advice or a friendly word. Not because he never got to dance at my wedding like he always said he would. I know that his death was wrong because while he touched so many of us, there are so many more that should have been able to have him there for them.
Sharp taught me so many things. He taught me how to be punctual. He
taught me to have pride in my work. He taught me that hard work was
necessary to achieve excellence. He taught me that I was worthy of
praise. He taught me to embrace my talents. He taught me about beauty.
He taught me poise. He taught me how to be classy. He taught me that no
matter what to be gracious and polite. He taught me never to boast,
always to be humble in public, always encourage others, and never be
cruel to someone who has lost. He taught me how to perform and how to
lead. He taught me who I wanted to be.
I miss him so much. I am just happy I was lucky enough to have had him at all.
*University Interscholastic League. It is the body that governs all extracurricular competitive activities in the state. Sporting events at the state level, One Act Play competition, Mathletes, all of that stuff. Big deal in Texas. Huge.
** Mothers And Fathers In the Arts, or MAFIA, was the theater parent booster organization. Sharp had a great sense of humor.
***Before every show we did a good show circle, and we would cross our arms and take the hands of the people on either side of us and would pass a squeeze around the circle to get energy going and some focus. While the squeeze was being passed we would tilt our heads back and look at the ceiling and recite what we could remember of 'Me and Earl' as we called it. Sharp had this old recording one of his students made of it while drunk on spring break on year. It wasn't quite the same as the one in the link, but it was close enough. Sometimes I say it to myself because somehow it makes me feel closer to him still.