Lookout 2008-09

by James T. Hosack, Jr.

By the Skin of My Teeth:
Or How I Upstaged My Old Friend & Teacher

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Don Cox was in the hospital. Images of “E.R.” and “Grey’s Anatomy” would be accurate. The man was surrounded by machines, tubes, wires of all colors and types.

“You gotta get better Don. They’re helping you out, but you gotta get better,” Debbie Grayson gently said to a man so burdened with sedatives that he could barely build the strength to squeeze my hand. Debbie, the mother of a high school drama student, is a woman short in stature and full in figure. She stood beside Don’s bed with me. We wore gloves, masks, and gowns, courtesy of the rules in the critical care unit. More barriers between us and the man in that behemoth of a bed.

“The show went wonderfully, Don,” she said, adding that, in his unexpected absence, I, J.T., “did a great job with the kids.” What happened? I went to cover a story, but then ... I became the story. The show, in this case, a high school drama production, has to go on, they say. My old drama teacher in a hospital bed, in the middle of the run-up to a production. This can’t be happening.

As Debbie comforted Don, she became distracted by the beeping and whirring of the respirator directly attached to Don via a tube down his throat. His chest moved up and down with each “whirr” of the ventilator, making something that is such a necessity for life, an action replaced by a mere piece of plastic.

Don Cox, 62, lay there helpless in the bed. A man usually as animated as any cartoon character you would hope to see could barely shake his head to answer us if what we said even required a response.
It was September 4, 2009 when I first revisited my old friend, this time as a friend, yes, but also in the role of college journalist profiling his old high school teacher for a magazine story. I had known him long before as a former high school student and actor under his direction. This time he was to be the lead role in a journalism project assigned to me. But my role as a journalist rapidly became much more than that. How could this happen?

An Unruly Bohemian

As I walked into his classroom in September, at the start of my reporting, I was hit with a sensory overload. There were posters everywhere from the previous productions. Loud music blasted from his stereo speakers. It was after school and Don was in the Best of Barbara Streisand mood. His classroom is much like his personality, extremely bohemian and sometimes bordering on the unruly.
There sat Don in his black computer chair: round glasses framing his face—a round man, much resembling a pear just off the tree. The old Christmas poem’s classic description of Santa Claus comes to mind.
I came just in time for the first rehearsal of the new show Don was directing at Peninsula Catholic High in Newport News, Va., home of the Knights, a dress code, and a “cafetorium,” the failed hybrid of a cafeteria and an auditorium. This “architectural wonder:” It’s cold and white with linoleum floors. There are high ceilings with the obnoxious square tiles. Cold, flat, and boring. There are doors along the right side of the room. A planked, wooden stage is raised a foot and a half above the linoleum floor. A closer look at the wood tells stories. Paint from prior productions put on by the students, scratches from the scenery and props being dragged across, and more tell the story of the stage and what happens on it. It’s as if Don was slowly leaving his mark. The stage is not big enough for either Don or the students. Noises, primitive and barely understandable, break my concentration and echo throughout the room.
The students were coming in to start rehearsal. They sauntered up to the stage, some skipping, some slowly walking, and some running. Don came in pushing his cart: part wheelchair, seat, and walker. He waddled in, hunched over in order to utilize the walker to its full potential. It’s not that he can’t walk, it’s that he’s still regaining some strength from the trip to the hospital that he made this summer and last. The trips were a result of clogged arteries in his leg and an ulcer. Due to these, he had a difficult time walking. Don is no stranger to the hospital. Earlier, in 2001, he had a stroke. This also made it hard for him to move around as his right side lost its fine motor skills.
Don was talking to his student actors. He had on his light blue polo shirt and dark pants, his usual outfit for a day at work. They are comfortable enough to get through the long school day, but formal enough to teach at a private high school. To his right on the table were Halls throat lozenges and a bottle of water, with straw. This is his usual tradition before starting rehearsal.
The cast members began as they seemingly always do. They sat on the “stage,” which is really just a formulaic positioning of risers built by Mr. Bill Clowers, another teacher, and some select students. The risers have grown in number over the years due to Don’s shows which have consistently grown in size, cast, and attendance. As they began there were random moans and groans from the group. Don’s cough could be heard throughout the cafetorium which hindered his communication with the students. The show that they were rehearsing is Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a show too deep and complicated for a high school. Don believed that they could do it, though.
Don sees potential where many would see failure. He sees the ability to produce something out of nothing. It’s as if he had the hands of God for each play and is able to mold a concrete object out of nothing but ideas and dreams. He sees possibility, giving his actors, the students, free reign and the capability to roam the character and get a feel for what or who it is. He sees what can be unlocked and used, that hidden fire just waiting to be stoked and fed. It is this outlook that students love about him, and why they come back over and over again.

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