Message him, e-mail him, ask him how he is. Tell him how you’re still writing.
Eh. I’ll do it later.
It had been a constant battle back and forth with my inner voie. For some reason, I’d been thinking about my old teacher from school, Mr. Rolly. The last I’d talked to him was two years ago when I’d graduated, inviting him and his family to my Graduation party. A few days after that, I’d told him about my plans for my life and thanked him for everything he’d taught me.
For the past two weeks, I’d been wondering about him and whether or not he was still teaching. In the past when we had exchanged e-mails and messages back and forth, I had seen him as my mentor. I would send files upon files of my latest writing projects, asking for advice on how to make something better. After receiving advice on my latest creation, however, I hadn’t responded. In the last e-mail he wrote me, he had wished me luck in all my future adventures. He also told me that, if I wished, I could keep him up-to-date on my career as a writer and continue using him as an editor.
He inspired something in me to keep questioning and learning everything possible. He told all his students that, before they turned 21-years-old, they had to read at least one Jack Kerouac novel. (The one I picked was “On the Road”, which is amazing, in and of itself. It also happened to be one of Mr. Rolly’s favorites.) We also had to see a play on Broadway before we died. He inspired all his students to keep creating fictional worlds in their minds and that, even when we were adults, pretending was okay.
I remember March 12. It was raining. It was chilly. There were threats of flash flooding here and there. I was off work and decided to stay home that day. I had hobbies I wanted to get back into, one of them being my sketchbook.
I settled on the floor, the nagging voice to e-mail or message Mr. Rolly becoming stronger and stronger since the previous day. I kept shutting it down, wondering what in the world could be causing it. He’d probably forgotten all about me, two years later.
As I picked a playlist on my phone, my mother let out a soft gasp. She sharply inhaled, her eyes filling with sorrow and dread.
I looked up at her and, before I could stop the sarcastic comment from falling out of my mouth, the words tumbled on their own accord, as if someone pushed them. “What, who died?”
The look on her face as she turned to look at me said it all. Now was not the time for sarcasm. I would later regret asking the question at all. Something bad happened. She read something bad on the computer. My first thought was my best friend, Ian. He was driving home today from New York and the weather wasn’t pleasant for driving. But no, that wouldn’t make anything yet, if something had happened.
“Mom? What is it?” I pushed, wanting to know.
Seconds seemed to last centuries. “You can’t cry, okay?”
I got up off the floor, pulling my earbuds out. I sat on the arm of the couch closest to her. I swallowed hard, pushing down the ball of worry that decided to reside in my throat. “What?”
“Mr. Rolly passed away yesterday morning.”
I stared at her. I stared at the photo up on the screen of my teacher smiling. He still resembled Captain Hook, even though it had been five years since I’d first met him and told him so.
I couldn’t comprehend what the words meant. Mr. Rolly? Dead? No. No, they had the wrong name, the wrong man! No, that’s not my teacher. He’s still alive and he was probably at work that day on the Gateway Clipper or he was working on his musical, A Pirate’s Tale. He wasn’t dead.
The tears came quickly. I remember they were hot tears, falling. My hand went to my mouth. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. The memories came flooding back…
I was told, in ninth grade, that I was allowed to take an online enrichment course. Basically, “gifted” classes for the above-average students. I looked through the list and really, none of them stood out to me. My mother insisted that I pick one. This would look good on resumes and might offer me some socialization with other cyber schoolers. I reluctantly agreed.
There, at the end of the list, was a class. “Introduction to Commedia del’arte. Instructor: Shaun Rolly.”
Below that, a brief summary of the class. We would be talking about the beginning of theater and the main characters in plays. We’d be discussing musicals, plays, programs, and the behind-the-scenes history of comedy in theater. “There you go!” My mom, overly happy, was trying to talk me into it. “You like plays!”
I shrugged. Sure. Why not? Maybe it would help me get out of my shell?
I agreed and signed up for the class. A week later, I signed in and waited in an online classroom. A few other students arrived shortly after. A few minutes after 3:00, the teacher signed into the room. He began addressing us all by our names and having us tell him one fact about ourselves. Then, the fun began.
The next few weeks, every Tuesday, I’d sign into the class and anticipate another hour filled with laughter. Commedia del’arte became my favorite class. I remember one class, in particular, that he was teaching. He had a window open and his neighbors were cutting down a tree with an obnoxiously loud saw. He forgot to turn the microphone off and made his way to the window. The next thing we heard was his voice, shouting to his neighbors, “Get a beaver!” Then slamming the window down.
He came back to a room full of fourteen students laughing and commenting. He was confused until he realized he’d left the microphone on. That’s one of the best memories I have.
Towards the end of the 12 weeks, I was sad that it was ending. I wanted more of Mr. Rolly’s teachings. I wanted to learn everything I could from him. I was craving for my other teachers to educate like he did. He made it personal and like he truly cared about each and every one of us. After the class, he was offering four more. I took up three of them, including Commedia del’Arte. Actually, I took the class three more times, his sword-fighting class the same, and his Disney Class, three parts, two times each. I was dedicated, you could say.
One of the assignments for the class was to write a short scene, using the characters he had taught us about, such as Pulcinella, Pantalone, Il Capitano, Il Dotore, Brighella, and so on. Being the overachiever – a moniker I hadn’t wanted but developed – I ended up writing a two-page play. I e-mailed it to Mr. Rolly and never received an e-mail back.
The next time class came, I still had received no feedback about my scenario. I waited anxiously in the second-to-last class of the course. I chewed my nails, tapped my foot, bounced my pencil, I couldn’t keep still. Two minutes until class started. One minute until class started. It was time. One minute passed. Another minute. Okay, he was now three minutes later. Ding! The sound that happened when someone entered the “classroom” echoed in our ears. Mr. Rolly!
I continued chewing my nails as he took role. Afterwards, he made an announcement.
“Alright class, before we begin, I need to bring something to our attention. Last week, I asked for a scenario. I had said it could be a few sentences, even a paragraph or two, but it didn’t have to be a whole paper. However, one student didn’t follow the rules.”
A deadly silence.
“Instead, this student wrote me a play. An entire play. Complete with characters, setting, emotion, and yes, comedy! Let me read a little of it…”
After reading the first two paragraphs, I realized this was my paper! He was reading my play aloud to the entire class! He had three classes per week, and out of all of his students’ papers, he had picked mine to read!
My stomach did flip-flops and my cheeks grew sore from smiling throughout the reading. After he was finished, he cleared his throat. “Heather! Where are you?”
I clicked the button to “raise my hand.” (It put a little hand waving icon by our name to let the teacher know that we wanted to speak or had something to contribute.)
I was given the permission of using my microphone. Only two people could use it at one time, so the only two voices hitting the other students’ ears were mine and Mr. Rolly’s.
“Ah! There you are! Okay, so, this is your paper, yes?”
I cleared my throat. “Yes,” I managed to squeak out.
“You can be louder than that!” A small laugh then, “I’m kidding, I’m kidding, that’s fine! I used to be shy too! Anyway, is this a scenario?”
I cleared my throat again. This man was a character that had no problem speaking to a whole auditorium of people. Me? I hated just talking in public with my friends!
I cleared my throat a third time and took a deep breath to steady myself. “I, um . . . I just wanted to . . . I like to write and . . .” The words refused to make sense and come out. My shyness was getting the better of me. I could feel my nervous habits, even if no one else could see them. I bit my bottom lip, I stuttered, I blinked more than usual, and my arms crossed in front of my chest. Thankfully, Mr. Rolly didn’t miss a beat and came to my rescue.
“Don’t apologize! This is amazing! Tell me, what do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do with your life?”
Aha! An easy question! One I was confident in answering. “A writer, Sir. I want to be a writer.”
Then, the words that would follow me for the rest of my young adult life, probably my whole life, were spoken. “Well, Heather, going by this play, you are not going to be a writer. You ARE a writer!”
The rest of the class began after those four words, but my ears echoed with them, just as they do even now, long after the rest of the class and the speaker himself had forgotten.
After that, I craved his advice about my short stories I was writing. He became, unknowingly to both of us at the time, my mentor. I would message him with files and files of chapters, stories, outlines, and so on. He would offer me back details and advice on how to make a scene more emotional or comedic. He would help me with writing a play I’d had floating around my head for the past three years.
My mind found its way back to reality.
“Heather? Honey, are you okay?” My mother’s voice breaks through the echo now. Her words jumble together with those spoken five years ago in an online classroom.
“W-what happened?” I stutter out, tears trying to suffocate my voice.
She does some typing on her computer. She doesn’t want to tell me. No matter the reason for the death, she knows I will cry. Once I start crying, letting all the tears have a mind of their own, I will not stop.
In February, I had lost my estranged father to lung cancer. It hadn’t affected me much, but it was still a death in my life. Now, my mentor had passed, suddenly, overnight. His son, Kyle, had found him in his bedroom. The death was being ruled as “under investigation.” A few days later, it would be ruled as a suicide.
I remember sitting on the couch, staring. I couldn’t comprehend how this would have happened to Shaun Rolly. Pirate, teacher, actor, playwright.
Just the few weeks prior, he had been on my mind. My mother knew the impact this man had had on me. He inspired me to write more and to write better. He’d gotten his theater troupe to put on the play; it ended up lasting about half an hour. He broke through my shell and made me realize it’s easier to laugh at yourself than be afraid of people laughing at you. He taught me to keep my head up and not let anyone tell me that I couldn’t do something. We were all capable of doing whatever we wanted, despite being told no.
In the next month that followed, Mr. Rolly’s page was flooded with tributes and memories from his former and present students, friends, family members, and people whose lives he had touched. I fell into an obsession of finding out why he would do this. Why did the man who told us to never give up decide that this was the only way out? Why would he leave us like this? Why would he allow us to remember him this way? If I had e-mailed him, would I have been able to stop him? Would I have been able to ask him a question or two that would have given him the ambition to carry on?
Did I blame myself? Yes and no. I hadn’t ever met him in person, though all of us had begged and begged to find a way to meet him. I think he was everybody’s favorite teacher. He made learning fun and easy. He incorporated everything he could into his lessons to make them more interactive and fun. Especially in his sword-fighting class, where we learned how to handle a sword like a talented pirate.
Now, almost seven months after his death, I’m dealing with it better. It still hurts, days when I remember. It’s hard to talk about.
When you know someone who has committed suicide, the subject is touchy. I find it hard to vocally tell people about him but, once I get going, I can’t stop. I want to get the word out about suicide. That there is help, that people out there will listen if you need someone to talk to. I’ve had to use those people from time to time myself.
He wouldn’t want us to mourn him. He wouldn’t want us to stop living. He would tell us to carry on, to continue fighting, to not be like him. He would give us all the words that we would need to get through the hard days of our future. He would tell us not to miss him too much. He would tell us to ignore the ones who tell us we can’t do something, that we are ALL capable of doing whatever our heart sets its sights on.
As for me, I’ve found things to remind me of him. I have the phrase he would tell us at the end of each class memorized. “Take up your swords, it’s your ship now.”
So, Mr. Rolly, this one’s for you.
I’ve picked up my sword, and no one will take this ship from me.