Once upon a time in the mid-90’s, when I was taking a break from college and waiting tables at a nightclub in that same college town, a friend suggested that I give Community Theatre a try. Somehow I was able to muster the courage to go to an open audition, and I was cast in a small, small role in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: I was to play a prostitute. My theatrical debut consisted of me staggering onto the stage, intoxicated. I was to deliver two lines in a terrible “Cockney” accent, while talking off my shoe and throwing it at a “lying scoundrel.”
The scene that my character would disrupt with her antics involved Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present (I believe). Each night (shortly after the ghost began his visit with Scrooge by saying, “Rise, and walk with me…”), I would enter stage left; drunk, disheveled, loud, and unapologetic. I’d curse one fellow and proposition another. The audience would have a good laugh, and then something amazing would happen. The Ghost of Christmas Present, or the GCP, would benevolently lean over and sprinkle ‘magic dust’ on me, and I would instantly become a proper lady (unfortunately, the magic dust wasn’t powerful enough to make me a better actor, but that’s another story).
As I was an extremely minor character, I had plenty of time backstage during rehearsals to talk to the other actors in the production-most of whom were local celebrities of some sort. There was the newly minted attorney, whose office overlooked the town square; the artist in residence, who had painted murals on store fronts from one end of the town to the other; and the kindly Psychology professor, who was also a practicing Psychotherapist with an office down on Main Street. Even the director of the production was the Headmistress of the nice private school on the edge of town.
One day during rehearsal I happened to be talking to the Psychotherapist, who was also the ghost of Christmas Present, about this and that and the other thing. I can only imagine what my 20 something self might have said (surely it was quite opinionated and laced with profanity), but I do know that at one point he asked me about my plans for the future. I told him that I wanted to go back to school. He, being someone who really listened and really cared, said that he thought it was a good idea and wondered what I might study. At the time I had also been teaching art classes at the private school on a volunteer basis, so I said, “I want to be a teacher.” The GCP, of course, said something wonderful like, “I think you would make a very good teacher.” Anyway, we went on to other subjects after that, and I really never gave it another thought.
Night after night, during rehearsals and actual performances, the GCP would make me into a lady. He never once judged me or chastised me for my mistakes or bad behavior. He didn’t require me to be ashamed or apologetic. Instead, under the bright stage lighting and for everyone to see, the GCP would reach out to me with compassionate understanding and give me a gift like no other -a second chance- just as he would for Ebenezer Scrooge himself. Instantly I’d sober up, stand tall, smile politely, and become the person I was meant to be. Nobody, including myself, saw the true magic in that little vignette. It was a scene in a play presented every year, attended by the faithful townspeople, receiving marginal reviews from the local paper. Well, scratch that. There was one person who noticed…
A week or so after the last performance of A Christmas Carol, during a dismally slow lunch shift at the nightclub where I still worked (why they attempted to serve bar food to a lunch crowd is beyond my comprehension), I had a surprise visitor. The bells above the front door jingled as he entered. I casually looked up from my side work to discover the GCP standing at the greeter’s station. He was back lit by the sun and wearing street clothes. He looked nothing like the GCP of stage, with the exception of his white hair and beard. He looked more like Santa Claus in the off season. I was completely surprised and blurted out, “What are you doing here?” He said, “Well, I believe I’d like a cup of coffee.” Our coffee was absolutely terrible, so I said, “Are you sure?” He nodded, and I motioned for him to sit at one of several empty tables. As I poured him a lukewarm cup of our quasi-poisonous coffee-like substance, the GCP explained that he didn’t have much time. He asked if I would sit and talk with him for a minute. I glanced around and saw that we were the only two people in the bar, so I agreed.
I admit that I was somewhat flattered and intrigued, as well as embarrassed to be seen by a pillar of the community in such an inauspicious setting (never realizing that this was just how he had always seen me, time and time again-only on this occasion I didn’t happen to be wearing a costume from the late 1800’s). As it turns out, the GCP had come to this shady place to make me a proposition. He got right down to business and said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said about going back to school to become a teacher. So, my wife and I would like to offer you $100 towards books and tuition, if you’ll register for classes at the college for next semester. We think it would be a good investment.” I was shocked. I was speechless. I was overwhelmed and confused. I believe that I laughed nervously and blinked quite a bit, which was probably not the reaction he was expecting. I finally told him that I’d have to think about it, or something like that. He bravely finished his coffee, and left me a $5 tip.
At first, it seemed like a daydream. After all, no one else had been there to witness it. For days afterward I found myself wondering what classes were being offered at the college and whether or not I could fit them into my work schedule. Mostly, I just laughed it off. When the day finally came for registration, I found myself at the college standing in line alongside the other students. Just as it was about to be my turn with the registrar, Fred (that’s the GCP’s real name) and Anne Richards walked into the room. I smiled shyly, thinking that he would surely not remember his offer and that it would definitely be impolite to remind him of it. After all, his kind words of encouragement had already gotten me this far. Fred stopped in his tracks, looked at me with great pride and said, “Well, here you are.” He turned to his wife and said, “Anne, we owe this young lady $100 for books and tuition.” Then he pulled out his wallet, opened it up, and said,”Look. I happen to have $100 right here.” Anne smiled and said, “Then it was meant to be.”
Two years later I graduated from that school with a BFA in Art. I worked for twelve years after that as a Scenic Artist here in Orlando. Upon completion of my Master’s in Mental Health Counseling, I became an Exceptional Student Education teacher for students on the Autism Spectrum, fulfilling my promise to Fred. Now I am a Counselor in private practice at Life Skills Resource Group, all because the Ghost of Christmas Present gave me a second chance. Fred Richards believed in me at a time when I’d forgotten how to believe in myself. He appeared to me like a friendly apparition and reminded me that I still had the potential and the will to succeed. He gave me hope for the future, when I was just about convinced that I was hopeless. What gift could be better than that? As a Counselor, I have the opportunity to pay it forward every day.
Happy Holidays to everyone, but especially to Drs. Fred and Anne Richards of Carrollton, GA.
To Contact: TherapistKimMurphy@gmail.com