Her name was Rhoda E. Kittelson but to us, she was Ms. K. Known for her trademark booming voice and ever-present cigarette, she was a staple at Lafayette High School, much like the towers and the ominous "angel" that guarded the front hallway.
I can't remember the exact moment that I first met Ms. K., I just remember watching her in awe. Ms. K. taught English, but more importantly to this teenage girl hell-bent on Hollywood, she taught "productions" -- a class that put on musicals, sang in assemblies, choreographed dances and got to hang out in the auditorium for lunch and rehearsals.
I wanted so badly to be a part of that high school celebrity, and Ms. K. was the key to getting there. After many auditions, I managed to land a lead role in my first musical "Guys and Dolls." As Miss Adelaide, I had to strip down to a teddy and learn how to do high kicks in heels. However, I quickly found out these were going to be the least of my worries.
Ms. K. was demanding, a perfectionist in every way, and insisted on commitment from us. She was the first adult to treat me as an adult, and with that respect came expectations. Through the late rehearsals and the grueling pace, she was relentless -- and I loved her for it.
Through the next year, I worked closely with her as I became senior manager of the class and took on the lead in the next musical. It was no surprise at this point that she had high expectations.
Subtlety was not her strong point. She could be brutally blunt, pointedly telling me to "get rid of" 10 pounds to play a certain role, and telling me where to go (and not mincing words) when I decided to throw a teenage hissy fit.
Always the director, since she had several years of experience in professional theater, she treated me like a performer. It became apparent that she wanted her students to be prepared for what the expectations of the lifestyle were.
This became especially apparent during a musical rehearsal, when I had to tackle my first stage kiss. I had been dreading it, embarrassed at the thought of kissing my leading man and friend in front of an auditorium of classmates. But Ms. K. would have none of it. She made me rehearse it over and over again, ignoring my discomfort, telling me later: "Unless you are comfortable with it, no one else will be and the audience will not buy it."
The result? I became comfortable with kissing and this aspect of being a performer. For all of her belief in all of us, she instilled the message: "You must make people see your talent."
Long after I graduated and chose to take a path other than the theater, that message still rang true to me. When faced with adversity, I grit my teeth the way she taught me to.
Sadly, Ms. K. recently lost her battle with brain cancer. In her last years, we exchanged words on Facebook and I was able to thank her for everything she did for me.
At her memorial service, generations of students came out to pay respect to a woman who served as mentor, surrogate mom and friend. Among them were students from her beloved productions. We hugged each other, cried together, but mostly we laughed together at our shared memories, and for a moment from the echoes of heaven I could swear I heard Ms. K. join in.
Jennifer Angrisano-Gall is a senior counselor at Bailey-LaSalle Outpatient Addictions.