I have been blessed a few times in my life to work with really great people who have been very supportive of my dreams and ambitions. I have also worked with people who could not see past what I was missing. It could be a painful struggle at times to try and keep my positive attitude in place when I was constantly being told I just wasn’t good enough.
In the fall of 1999 I was a freshman in college and majoring in theater. I knew in the depths of my soul that I wanted to act. I wanted desperately to be a performer and to be respected in it. I also knew that I had one leg and didn’t love my prosthesis. It was a hard barrier to cross with folks in the two minutes you had to audition. Also about that time I came across this article in a People Magazine. Then magically a new friend at college found an article in the New York Times about the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped. Then I saw a 60 Minutes story on it.
It took a few more years. It took accepting that I had one leg and despite the fact that I was desperate to appear abled-bodied I, in fact, did not. But, eventually I attended The National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped.
The summer of 2002 I attended my first ten days at the summer campus in Belfast, Maine. My flights from Georgia were delayed to the point that it was after midnight before I arrived. I was exhausted and terrified. I’m fairly gregarious in person and typically have no problem finding friends. Something about this trip made me feel like a complete imposter. I vividly remember making my way down the three flights of steps (there were elevators everywhere, but I never took them) and seeing everyone in the refectory (this is a Jesuit term for dining room, something my very Baptist self was unfamiliar with) eating breakfast. I literally turned on my heel and went back to my room (which was now absent of roommates) and ate the a cereal bar I’d packed. It was so freakishly intimidating to walk into that space with all of these people.
Eventually I had to come out of hiding. I had to help my Beadle group (another Jesuit term that basically means intern) with our various cleaning chores. And then I went to my first acting class. And y’all. I nearly wept from intimidation. I was in a class with kids who were at NYU and studying at the School of the Arts. And 90% of us were disabled. I was no longer the stand out in that crowd. I was so out of my depths.
Like all good challenges though. I grew. I made friends that I will never forget. I worked my tail off on a monologue that made me so nervous that I remember begging my friend Sarah to do it for me. And they had me sing.
This was debilitating for me. I’d lost a lot of confidence in my own abilities the three years I’d been in college. When you do that, you can also forget that you were ever good at something to begin with. I’d forgotten that there was a time that I could sing. But, Father Curry and our (fantastic) musical director John Spalla made me sing. And I cried before every rehearsal.
The night of the performance I’d managed to make my way through an incredibly difficult monologue and was now expected to sing my solo. I prayed. A lot. Then, I stepped on stage and I found my character and for the first time in two years I found my voice.
I looked up into the balcony where the lighting booth was and Father Curry was up there and I could visibly see him cheering for me. I could see his arm outstretched cheering and just so proud of me.
When I was invited back at the end of that session to continue on with the more advanced students I remember the way that Father Curry looked at me. He told me to never lose my voice again. To never let those who did not understand my need to create doubt my ability to do so.
Saturday night I found out that Father Curry had passed away.
And for a few days my voice was silent again.
I had a hard time processing all the things that he meant to me and what the place that NTWH was meant to me. How it had defined me. I am so grateful for those people. I am so grateful that they helped me find my voice.
Never let anyone make you feel like you are not something because of what you are missing.
Never let anyone silence your voice.