The first thing that struck me about my sixth-grade drama teacher was his appearance. Michael Demick dressed in flannel shirts unbuttoned over clashing tees, rumpled shorts and beat-up sneakers. His beard and mass of auburn hair looked as if they'd been styled by a chicken.
All of which appealed to a brainy, gawky 12-year-old who was just beginning seven years at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington. I sat cross-legged on the school's stage in a circle of other aspiring teenagers, and Michael (everyone called the teachers by their first names) began to work his magic on us.
Those early classes were simple enough: chaotic improv games, a few short scenes. What made them special was the man teaching them. Michael retained a child's grip on silliness, and he'd perfected the gross-out humor that middle-schoolers find funny. But he never condescended to us. When we asked questions, he gave honest, unsentimental answers.
Michael also had zero fear of looking foolish, and this willingness to risk indignity was the greatest lesson I took from his classes. When I arrived at H-B Woodlawn, everything embarrassed me. After a few semesters with Michael, I began to grasp the power of not always worrying what others think. He taught me to loosen up, to be goofy in front of other people. He also encouraged my minor teenage rebellions.
Your family is so cerebral, he'd sometimes tease me. It's okay to act out once in a while. Once, he watched me shredding a piece of paper into small strips and said, approvingly, "Katherine, I'm glad to see you doing something antisocial."
During my middle school years, I became a regular actor in the productions that Michael directed after school. He let us horse around at the rehearsals, but when provoked, he had a bullhorn voice that could stop a pack of mischief-making eighth-graders dead in their tracks.
During high school, he performed an even more valuable function: He created a space for my friends and me to do our own thing. We directed our own productions in a cave-like, 100-seat black box theater in H-B's basement. Students chose the plays, held the rehearsals, gathered costumes, built sets, worked the box office. In an age of increasing micromanagement of every aspect of teenagers' lives, Michael trusted us enough to leave us on our own; and, as if by magic, we rose to that trust.
Calling him our drama teacher doesn't really do him justice. That's like saying Benjamin Franklin was a guy who designed stoves. Michael taught, but he put in second and third shifts as a therapist and guru for the creative-minded students who flocked around him. He knew the minutiae of our daily lives in a way no parent could. For seven years, he was our sounding board, able to give a caring adult's perspective on things that our teenage eyes couldn't recognize or didn't trust: Those boys are being mean to you because they're insecure. Or just: Hang in there. There's life after high school.
H-B's graduations are highly personal affairs. Students and teachers exchange gag gifts and congratulations on stage. There's a faded, somewhat fuzzy photograph from that night in 1997 in one of my parents' photo albums: Michael, with his red beard and typically disarrayed clothing, is offering me a silky jacket, patterned in a riot of turquoise, gold, magenta and green. He speaks into the microphone, and I stand beside him, beaming. This, Michael is saying to me and the crowd, is a "coat of many colors," to remind a young woman of many moods and many interests who she is in this world. And though you can't see it in the picture, my eyes are brimming with tears.
Katherine Sharpe is a writer living in San Francisco.