Lines written for my high school drama teacher’s hundredth birthday

Hart-Smith House, Epsom College, Summer Term, 1955:

The talk amongst us thirteen-year-olds huddled in the day room turns to which senior house will open its portals to us come September. There is universal agreement: Fayrer—Foxy Phair’s house—is the one. Why such consensus? Could it be your non-conformist flare? Your reputation for new and different ways?

Big School, June, 1959: Dress Rehearsal for “Julius Caesar”

You sit far back in the auditorium, alone, silent, barely visible, but utterly present. Suddenly, you’re amongst us, making deft adjustments to the mob crowded into the forum. You spring up the steps to where I’m poised at the at the podium, fiddling with my unfamiliar cuirass, pre-performance nerves mounting. You face me full-on, a foot separating us, hold my eye. Your voice is crisp, yet calming.

“Remember, now, start strong with ‘Friends, Romans…Drop your register on ‘The good is oft interred…’ Reach for your full height with ‘Caesar was ambitious…’ Drip honey on ‘For Brutus was an honourable…’ Linger fractionally between ‘Caesar’s funeral…’ and ‘He was my friend…’ Shed those tears on ‘What cause withholds…’ Then unleash both barrels on ‘mourn for him’.”

You muse, then, ‘Nuance is everything—voice, posture, movement—everything!”

University of Florida, College of Medicine, May 2006

Forty-seven years on, a real-life drama is unfolding: the fate of my palliative care program hangs in the balance. We three personae dramatis are gathered in front of our chairman’s office desk; my division chief, the budget officer, and me. But I’m the only one who has learned my lines, matched them to gestures and actions that could bring about the ideal resolution. For I have gone back in my mind to your consummate directing of my speech from my podium in the Roman senate. I have paraphrased that ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech to make my case to these three ‘honourable men’ of this modern-day-America senate. I’ve rehearsed at home—even borrowing a costume from our local theatrical supply store—until I’m word and gesture perfect. As I address them, I relive my performance of forty-seven years earlier.

The hour that now unfolds in the chairman’s office is perhaps my most transformative one in forty years of doctoring. The outcome is beyond my wildest hopes. This is when I finally get it: the sheer scope of your tutelage in how to communicate—verbally and non-verbally—on life’s stage. The pitch and pace of my words; the moments to pause, and for how long; the transfer of empathy in my gaze; the vitality unleashed in the rapid, decisive movement of my body. In these moments, I come to see how fully your shadow has fallen on me.

We play myriad roles, wear countless hats in life. Doctors, like actors, like teachers, perform our lives. We change appearance, posture, pitch and tone of voice, dozens of times in a day, numberless times in a lifetime. We shift from plain speech to conciliation, from doughtiness to intimacy. But we are none of us born with these skills ready honed. We must learn them slowly, often ham-fistedly. Rarely is a mentor thrown in our path whose chosen work is to inculcate, then polish and fine-tune, such vital skills for living. Such a one is not simply an exemplary teacher, he or she is an artist sui generis. And such a one were you, Sir, for me. Thank you.