My high school drama teacher got married Monday morning. It shouldn’t have been that big a deal, but Orville Bell was in newspapers and on TV all over the world. When he married his partner of 15 years, Joseph Panessidi, they became the first gay couple to be officially wed in New Jersey.
Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, where the couple lives, did the honors, interrupted briefly by a man who shouted that the union was an abomination in the eyes of God.
Mr. Bell — it’s hard even now for me to call him “Orville” — was one of my favorite adults at Rockville High. He taught English and was sponsor of the drama club. He took theater seriously, and he wanted us to take it seriously, too, to see how it could excite and ennoble us.
In December of my junior year we did two shows in repertory, alternating performances of Jean Anouilh’s tragedy “Antigone” with the musical “The Fantasticks.” For “Antigone,” Mr. Bell put us in modern dress, I in a dinner jacket as the Chorus, the soldiers in fatigues. Without enough decent boy actors, he cast a girl as the evil Creon. She slunk around in silk pajamas before ordering Antigone walled inside a cave.
In the spring, he cast me as the lunkhead Lewis in a wonderfully bawdy production of the musical “Pippin.” A Christian group sent every member of the cast a letter lamenting our certain damnation.
In the program notes for “Antigone,” Mr. Bell wrote: “It is fairly easy to pick up a script, memorize lines, fumble around on a plane surface, and dress up under lights and make-up. But have you considered that theater requires a script that is studied as carefully as a surgeon examines his patient; a script that is drilled then set, but after re-examination, cast and director mutually decide to scratch it and start over; a script that allows us to make an honest self appraisal and creates a questioning anxiety: ‘Will the audience understand what we are about?’
“Theater is not a game. It is not a social event, but it is an environment that nurtures a bond of oneness experienced by few. It is a discipline that is dependent upon each component. It is a ‘high’ that no one can describe when we can say, ‘That’s it!’ ”
He was writing about theater, but he could have been writing about life. As with so many great teachers, Mr. Bell’s lessons weren’t only about what was on the page.
I would see Mr. Bell occasionally after I graduated in 1980. After Rockville, he headed the English department at Paint Branch High School. We lost track when he moved to New York City, but I heard he’d taken a job 10 years ago teaching at the newly opened Harvey Milk High, a school for troubled LGBTQ youths.
Hearing his name on the radio, I had to find Mr. Bell. I called and welcomed him to the club of married guys.
“I had always been married,” he said. “I’ve always known commitment. I’ve always known responsibility. I just now have a piece of paper.”
Mr. Bell recently retired from teaching at age 65. He now oversees after-school enrichment programs for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which serves LGBTQ youths.
In Montgomery County, Mr. Bell taught in one of the country’s premier systems. At Milk, he taught students who were often “intensely marginalized, intensely ostracized and cruelly destroyed by their own people.” Sometimes, students’ own families had rejected their sexuality and thrown them out.
“[Teachers] must be so careful,” he said. “You must never make anyone feel ‘less than.’ It requires tremendous patience all the time. Your vocabulary must in no way suggest, ‘Come on, don’t you get that?’ If anything, one needs to design instruction in such a way that both student and teacher are seeing it together. It’s not me teaching you something I know. It’s ‘Let’s look at this together and find the answer.’ ”
Mr. Bell would often say that there isn’t one right answer and that learning was the process of opening your mind, of thinking about possibilities, of articulating why you believed something, of finding supporting arguments.
I pulled out my yearbook from 1980. On a page near the back I found Mr. Bell’s note. “We’re already who we are by our high school days, and any ‘change’ is a slight modification or a fallen veneer,” he had written. “You will be the John tomorrow whom I know today. And I enjoy that John. One day I know that many fine accomplishments of yours will be recognized by others.”
By recognizing something in me, he set me on my path. Thank you, Mr. Bell, and congratulations.
The woman who helped plan the Snark Free Day? She’s Amy Kossoff Smith. I got her last name wrong in my column Tuesday. Feel free to be snarky about it.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.