An ostrich-like man, he sat in the front row of the theatre, left leg crossed over the right, with the left foot tucked again behind the right ankle. A double- cross of sorts. And both feet flat on the floor. Really. He was that skinny. Coffee thermos at his feet, cigarette in his hand, smoke making puffy clouds above his head. This is how I always envision the most important teacher in my life.
A very shy sophomore, I don't know what possessed me when I signed up for Drama I. I never wanted to be the center of attention and certainly never did anything that might make people laugh at me. But he saw something in me that I didn't know was there. He was gentle at first. "Porter, you should come out for contest speech. The meeting is next week." Then came, "Porter, you should try out for the spring play." He wanted me. I belonged somewhere. I came home.
Rehearsals became the best learning experiences ever. He would stomp up to the stage, playing every character at times, just to cajole us into seeing his vision. He was a hard taskmaster, and I have never learned more in my life than I did during my time with him. He never accepted less than your best.
Quickly, newcomers learned never to utter the dreaded, "I can't". A believer in the phrase "I yell because I care", the words "Can't never did anything!" would echo through the theatre when anyone tried to explain why they couldn't do something. No one ever laughed at the unfortunate whiner because we knew the feeling. We also knew he was right.
To this day, although I am sometimes still uncomfortable in new situations and trying new things, I do them anyway. I do not say "I can't" before I have even tried. I do not say "I can't" when I am afraid of being laughed at. I do not say "I can't" when in unfamiliar territory. Because somewhere up in heaven the words "Can't never did anything" will thunder across the sky.
RIP, Mr. Niceswanger. Your legacy lives on.