An Ode to my first Love- Phantom of The Opera

    I wrote this essay three years ago as my personal introduction to the colleges I was applying to. The transfer student admittance officer at Sacred Heart University, where I eventually attended, said it was the best she’d ever read. I never thought of it as being that special. But I’m proud of it now. She was right. It is damn good. I’m posting it for the same reason I post everything I write; so you can get to know me. And you’ll never know me without knowing how much music and theatre means to me, and all the obstacles that too often come between us. Excuses? Partially. But not inexcusable excuses. I’ve known who I was since I remember being conscientious. The trick was believing in that person. Hating myself always got in the way of supporting my dreams and my loves. In fact my jaded self would end up sabotaging things, like a jealous, bitter rival, tearing down all that had come before it. In the innocence of childhood I was free to dream and love. In the wake of adolescence I was tormented and twisted into a scared and desperate prisoner, digging deeper and deeper into oblivion. These two halves still struggle. They wage war everyday. On good days, the battles are won by my original self; the dreamer, the lover and believer. The bad days are surrendered to the jaded hater and trapped mess that resulted from abuse, neglect, and constant, relentless fear. I am happy to say, even in my current state of jobless, homeless strife, I have more good days then bad days. It is a testament to my strong soul and unrelenting sense of humor. Please take the time to get to know me a little better by reading this- an Ode to my first Love.

      I had a choppy childhood. My parents fought a lot and many times their anger would turn to us. The five of us lived off my father’s Social Security Disability checks, title 19 and food stamps. Our three-bedroom apartment was located in a housing project. My mother kept the inside very clean and pretty, but the neighbors were drug dealers. Neither of my parents worked. My father was blind and very old and my mother stayed home to care for him. Since we didn’t have money to spend, we had to find ways of enjoying ourselves that didn’t cost anything. We’d go for walks during the autumn and collect fallen leaves. We’d spend most of the summer at the beach and winters were spent sleigh riding and building
snowmen on the community hill out our back door. At different times through out the year one of the three major network television stations would run “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story”. My mother would find out way ahead of time by reading the TV guide, and plan the night. Bedtime was usually at 9 p.m., but was always extended on nights like this. We had an old hide-a-bed couch we’d pull out and all of us, except for my father would lounge together, watching the show, my father just listening from his chair, all of us eating Jiffy Pop. I’d never felt so warm and safe. There was no fighting, no calls from bill collectors, and no gunshots outside. All I remember was feeling completely whole and happy. Music carried me away, and I felt that my life could be full of purpose and importance, like the characters I was watching. It was usually very difficult for me to sit still and I was always afraid of hidden monsters in the dark but never on these nights. On these nights, nothing bad
existed at all.
 I remember I was about ten years old when my ticks started, and earlier
than that when the “habits” took over. I couldn’t walk up the stairs without worrying
about where I’d placed my feet on each step and couldn’t go to the bathroom without
folding my towel at least eight times. I’d have to hold my breath when other people coughed or sneezed around me. I was constantly afraid of getting sick and always anticipating something catastrophic happening. Before these problems began I was a confident third grader that organized an in class production of “The Wizard of Oz”. I held auditions in the cafeteria during lunch, and rehearsals during recess. But slowly the issues took over me, and by the time I was  twelve, I didn’t want anyone to look at me. If I could have stopped existing all together I’d have done so gladly.
My father died the summer I turned thirteen and I couldn’t sleep at night. To pass the twilight hours, I would listen to “The Phantom of the Opera” over and over. We’d been treated a year before to attend a Broadway performance of the show. Since my father was too ill to attend, he’d listened with his eyes closed to the sound track at home. That’s one of the most vivid images I have of my father. He would sit alone in a dark room, his head tilted slightly back listening and softly humming to the music that was playing. He’d do this most often with the classical opera’s played over public radio. I hated them, thinking they were loud and the singers were screaming. The first time my sister brought home the soundtrack to “The Phantom…” I was reluctant to stay in the room, fearing the same sort of experience. To my unadulterated delight, my prejudgments were unfounded, and I fell in love immediately. After my father’s death, I couldn’t turn my bedroom light off. I would sit and listen until two or three a.m. to the Phantom and wish for something better, believing in the possibilities, but not completely convinced.
Entering high school I was fatherless, motherless because soon after my father’s death my mother had taken a boyfriend and barely slept a night at home, still living in a housing project with my ticks getting worse and my “habits” becoming increasingly internalized. I hated everything about myself and if asked to describe ugly, would have described myself. I wore coke bottle glasses, had frizzy hair and wore the flannel shirts and boy jeans my sister brought home for me from her job at the Army and Navy store. Thankfully I’d maintained my grades at school, always one of the top students. It’s the only area where I’d remained successful: than came Mrs. Lloyd’s English class. For the first time in my life I’d gotten a “C” in English. Honestly I’d thought it impossible. Ever since the fourth grade I’d been a wiz at writing essays and poetry. All my teachers had loved me. That “C” mortified me. Than came the Shakespeare unit. Romeo and Juliet was the required reading, but Mrs. Lloyd had her own ideas. Acting out the play, she believed, was the only way to really understand it. She handed out scenes from the play, perhaps randomly, some monologues, others for groups of two or three. I don’t know what I did. I remember just sitting at my desk, regrettably located between the two most beautiful girls in class, trying to be  invisible, when the sheet of paper landed on my desk. Not believing what I saw, but not daring to question the first woman to ever give me a “C” in English, I packed the paper away in my notebook. I had no choice, I was stuck with probably the most famous soliloquy in the world. The ugliest girl in class had to convince classmates that were happy to ignore  her that she was the most famous romantic lead existing in literature. I was dumbfounded. There was no other choice really, I had to do a great job, I’d gotten a “C” after all and couldn’t let that go unmended. So I studied the monologue. Every night, every day I studied the monologue until I remembered it by heart and could recite it like “The Pledge of Allegiance” and the “Our father”. I studied what the dress of the times would have looked like, borrowing an old empire wasted nightgown from my friend’s mother. I almost soiled my costume the day I had to perform. I took a deep breath, entered the room and stunned everyone. They didn’t clap immediately after I’d finished. They just looked at me. Then they roared approval and insisted I perform it again. Umm… Okay, so I did. They clapped some more. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Outside their clapping was muted and their expressions blurred, but inside (of me) there was this really light feeling, and complete happiness. I hadn’t felt that way for six years.
Of course I joined the Drama club, and the choir, eventually winning a spot in the school and than the city’s chamber choir, as well as twirling the flag for marching band. Any opportunity to perform I took. I took a job at 5:30 a.m. before school every day so I could pay for dance classes twice a week.  My ticks persisted as my compulsive worrying subsided a bit, but neither bothered me during dance class or rehearsals. There were parts of me that I didn’t like or understand, but I’d found away to escape them. By my senior year, I’d won a small dramatic art scholarship my teachers had nominated me for and was accepted to Tisch School of the Arts. I was well on my way. Than I over heard a phone call between my mother and the school. She couldn’t afford to send me, and would not be approved for more loans because of her credit rating. Honestly, I think my world stopped there, my budding self-esteem wilted completely.
     The years that followed were difficult. I dropped out of the university I’d attended out of high school and started working. The good thing that came from the ensuing dark years however was enlightenment on the subject of my ticks and compulsions. At the age of twenty-five I was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and OCD. Not great news, but helpful because It helped me to understand a part of myself that had ruined so much of my life and limited my performance capabilities. How could I be an honest performer when all my life I’d taught myself to hide my problems, to internalize my feelings and “pretend” everything was okay. I couldn’t be honest with an audience when I wasn’t being honest with myself. It was necessary, but time consuming to experiment with different treatments and find a therapist that I liked. I continued taking classes at a community college near my house, eventually earning a degree in graphic design. I remember laughing under my breath when, after every oral presentation, my teachers took me aside and asked “have you ever considered theatre?” Truthfully I’d never seriously considered anything but theatre. Every elective course I took was acting, or theatre literature or speech and drama. As a graphic design major I’m sure the elective web design courses would have been more prudent, but I never even considered them. I knew what I wanted, but couldn’t pursue it until I knew who I was.
Honestly I’m still trying to understand who I am, and why my brain works the way it does. I never stayed away from performance for too long. I’ve done community theatre productions, all of which delighted me and continue to take dance classes. Understanding my “difficulties” has really helped me understand why I gave up so easily after high school. If you don’t believe in yourself it doesn’t matter how much you love something else. Believing in yourself is a prerequisite to believing in what you love. I’m ready to be a student again. This time if I get accepted to a program I won’t give up, simply because I have the confidence to persevere. Money always has and always will be a problem for me, but all along it wasn’t what was really stopping me. I have to start over, from this new place and see where it takes me. Where I’m headed has always been clear to me. It’s getting there that’s proved to be problematic. Even if I’d accepted Tisch’s invitation, I would have still had to back track, to heal what ailed me. After all this time, where I’m headed hasn’t changed. I’m just not silly enough to try to map out how I’m supposed to get there. I’ll get there and in the interim I’ll get better.


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