Saturday, December 6, 2008

Day 6: Carol Coburn

Day 6 of Thanks-Giving is in honor of one of the biggest influences in my life as a young person - Carol Coburn, the theatre arts instructor at Aloha High School until the late 1990s when she died suddenly in her sleep at the age of 60.

Carol Coburn was unlike anyone I had ever met.  She was very tall and very commanding and made no apologies about it.  She had a booming low voice and high expectations of everyone around her.  She didn't suffer fools gladly.  Her gift was recognizing the unrecognized gifts her students had yet to discover.  

I first met Miss Coburn as a junior in high school.  I had seen her around and had been to several of the plays the year before when I first started to meet the "drama people".  My first foray into the drama department was for interviews on a student-written production called, "A Circle of Hope".  During the school day, my friend Jeffa and I went to the drama room to talk to her and it was then that she invited us to come and speak to the cast and crew about the show at the Saturday work party.  I remember, at the time, wondering about students who came to school on Saturdays willingly - but I was a newspaper person coming to school at 6:00am on layout days, so what room did I have to talk?

After that, I always felt like I had unlimited access to whatever I needed in the department.  Miss Coburn pushed me to get involved, to stop trying to be invisible and step into my own personal power.  She supported my writing and found ways to incorporate that into the department in the form of a publicity newspaper for the annual musicals - "The Penzance Pensense" for "Pirates" and a similar venture for our "Brigadoon" production the following year.  She hung my poems in her office.  I never felt like I didn't belong there, even though I never took a drama class...I was petrified of that.  She encouraged me to audition (I did twice, but I wasn't really any good...maybe I should have taken that class), she made me assistant director on our old fashioned melodrama called "Pure As the Driven Snow".  I worked back stage, I did props and concessions, I attended almost all rehearsals for a couple of years.  I learned how to sew and paint, how to work with actors with egos, with crew, with the public.  I learned to sell tickets and paint posters and sets and how to be a leader even though I didn't lead anyone there. 

I loved Miss Coburn's office...she posted photos of all of her students.  I was so proud that mine went up along with Roby's and all the other students who seemed like "official" drama people...That was one of the things that struck me...all that history, all those faces peering at her with love...what happens to them?  I remember just going there and sitting for solace sometimes, if I had a hard day or something bad had happened.  

Miss Coburn trusted her students to be the best they could be and she accepted no less.  Sometimes we wanted to hate her for making us stand up and do what needed to be done, but down deep, we all respected her for forcing us to be our best selves.  In many schools, the parents did all the work - selling tickets, building the sets, sewing the costumes...not under Miss Coburn's watchful eyes.  She knew that we could do it - students did everything from directing, acting, dancing, designing sets, designing and sewing costumes, building, painting, selling tickets, promoting the show, and managing the adults.  Parents were welcome, but they worked under her direction and the direction of the students that had taken on leadership roles.  I'm sure it wasn't always easy, but people rarely let her down.  It was unthinkable.

After I graduated from high school, I continued to attend Aloha's spring musicals for about 10 years.  In 1988, Roby and I went to New York for the first time with Carol Coburn and Jim Erickson.  It was a phenomenal trip.  She was always happy to see me and even had me come to speak to her students about the potential career opportunities in deafness and particularly sign language interpreting.  I worked as a consultant on her production of "Children of a Lesser God", as well.  I was proud to go back to her and show her that I had become successful - and much of the credit went to her tutelage.  

Miss Coburn, you are missed!  Thank you for your belief in me and in all of us.  What an amazing gift you gave to all of your students.  I will never forget all that you meant to me.

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