This post isn't going to be easy. I've honestly been dreading it all week but now that I am fully fueled on a pot of coffee and a double gulp of Diet Dr. Pepper from 7-11 ... I feel more than ready to just get this all out of my head and onto paper ... er, onto the interwebz.
Here's the song that goes with this post ... omg, I'm already tearing up just hearing the intro.
As you guys know, I had a gnarly childhood. This doesn't make me special, only awesome, since 80% of people all come from some sort of trauma (and even those that don't sit and fester over being in the 20% that weren't fucked up). The people my dad grew up with were some of the nastiest people I have still to this day come across.
<tangent> In part of my healing with the shaman I sent my uncle a message on Facebook a few months ago and was genuinely so confused how ANYONE could be okay with being that cruel to a child. I was a BABY and these people were DOWNRIGHT CRUEL. Shocks me. At 27, I'm STILL shocked. Fucking assholes. </tangent>
Either way, they didn't like me - they all thought I was this weird little bundle of energy that made no sense to anyone since I was so outside of the "Connecticut mold."
I was a tomboy growing up, and SUPPPEERRRR passionate and driven for storytelling and adventures. I was always playing in my backyard building elaborate forts and spent hours at my little school desk in my room drawing out designs for my tree house.
I was just a weird ... weird ... kid. I had one friend who was equally weird, but we were both so weird and awkward that we spent a lot of time just doing our own things.
I lived in Bristol, CT up until the 7th grade, and school for me was pretty easy. Bristol schools weren't that competitive and because I was one of the only kids in the class that ALWAYS handed my homework in on time and ALWAYS offered to stay after class to help - the teachers freaking loved me.
::cough cough teachers pet::
I was an A/B student ... however, the scholastic side of my life always always always took a back seat to the entertainer side of my personality. I might not have said much in class to my peers, but on stage I felt at home. I grew up as a dancer (I started at age 2, the same year that I got into typing) and there was always something that sparked in me when I was in the spotlight.
Obviously now, after a lot of soul searching, I realize that I sought the validation I got on stage because I didn't get it from my extended family - but who cares! That was my constant and that is still to this day the only thing I knew how to do. No matter whatever was bothering me, or whoever was mean to me during that time - the stage became my outlet. It was this place where I was up there, and they were over there. No one can hurt you when you are on stage, and you have this chance and opportunity to express yourself in this crazy awesome way which is GREAT because I'm filled with all this creative energy that it had to go somewhere.
In 7th grade at Chippens Hill Middle School we were all given teams. If memory serves me correct, it was the Green Team, Blue Team, and Purple Team.
I had so desperately wanted to be on the Blue Team because my brother was on that team, and he LOVED his teachers. My mom put in a request to get me on the Blue Team, but it was denied.
NOOOOOOOOOOO!!! I said crying. I want to be on the Blue Team!! Why can't we make this happen??
I don't know Jen, replied my mom. Just go to the Green Team and if there are any problems I'll take care of it. There's nothing more that I can do for you right now.
FINE! I screamed stomping my feet upstairs to my bedroom and slamming my door. (I was pretty bratty during that time.)
I then went to school that first day, and got into my social studies class. I want to be on the Blue Team, I thought moaning and groaning to myself. This team sucks.
My teacher then walked in. He was so tall, with glasses and a mostly bald head.
How many of you don't want to be here right now? he said.
The students then looked around at each other wondering if this was a trick question.
I'm not here to talk down to you, he said. I'm not here to tell you what to do, or teach you things you don't want to learn. I'm instead here to excite you, and open your mind.
I sat up in my chair a bit and listened closer. I had never had a teacher talk to me before with so much ... respect.
Yes, we're going to learn some history, but it's only because history repeats itself and these skills will be VERY important to you all moving forward in life in whatever field you choose to go into.
I stare at this tall human being stunned. This guy is speaking my language, I thought!!!
I then went home after that first day and my parents asked me how my classes were.
They're fine, I replied.
Do you want me to move you, asked my mom?
No. I think I'm okay. I said coy but confident in my decision.
After the first week, my social studies class quickly became my favorite. My teacher's name was Mr. V. and he was so gregarious and entertaining. He wasn't just teaching us history, he was teaching us skills for LIFE!!!
I remember so vividly staring up at him from my desk so surprised that someone like this existed. Yes, I had teachers that I liked before, but Mr. V was inspiring and CAPTIVATING!!! He loved teaching so much, and he was so aware that we weren't "just kids" we were little people that hungered for knowledge.
I wanted to be around this human being more than anything I had ever felt in my life. I volunteered for EVERY after school activity he taught.
My favorite being the talent shows our team would put on. I was not only a dancer growing up but would also choreograph my own dances in my spare time - so I finally had an outlet outside of dance class that I could perform in.
Mr. V was always SOOOO encouraging. You're really talented, Friel. I want you to know that. You're sharp, and you sparkle on stage. You don't find that very often in people.
I then confessed something I had yet to share with a single adult outside of my parents - I want to be an entertainer, I said. I don't know if it's acting or dancing ... I just have all of this energy, and I know I was born to be on a stage.
The words escaped my 11 year old mouth and I immediately froze up wondering if he was going to ask me "what my fallback career was" - he instead replied with, I already knew that about you.
You're a star, Friel. I knew it the day you came into my class. You have this energy around you, and people are naturally drawn to you.
Yeah, but I said, I don't have a lot of friends.
But people respect you, he replied. And you're a leader. You'll figure out the friend part later - but for right now you need to keep leading and keep doing what you're doing. It will pay off one day, that much I am sure of.
I then shined my mouth full of braces back at him as he high fived me and told me to go home and do my homework ... even stars have to do their homework.
A few weeks later we had parent teacher conferences, and I remember anxiously awaiting my parents to return so I could hear what my teachers had to say.
I was SO FREAKING NERVOUS that Mr. V was going to tell my parents what I had confided in him and that he was going to be honest with them and say that I should really be steered in another direction.
I remember hearing the front door open as I LEAAAPPPEEEEEDDD down the stairs wondering what was discussed.
How'd it go? How'd it go? I said jumping on my parents. Literally. Jumping.
It was great, Jen, my parents said. Your teachers love you! They both replied.
We then sat down at the dining room table. Let's talk for a minute though.
Okay, I said ... nervous ...
Mr. V really believes in you, Jen.
What do you mean?
He told us that you said you wanted to work in the entertainment industry and he told us we needed to encourage you to do so. He said you were really talented.
I then looked at them ... shocked.
He told you that?
<tangent> Mr. V himself was an actor and a producer for various stage companies in Connecticut. </tangent>
Would you like to start auditioning for local plays? What can we do to help you, asked my parents?
I'm literally shocked at this point. My parents KNEW my entire life I was a performer but they had never actually spoken to me about breaking down the next doable actions.
Well, I'd like to just keep doing what I'm doing with Mr. V if that's okay, and then we can figure the rest out from there.
Wonderful, said my parents as they hugged me.
The year went by, and that Christmas we were assigned to do a one act play.
Mr. V. pulled me aside as we were split up into groups.
Friel, he said, you're going to want to be the actor in this, but I want you to write the story and produce it. I want you to learn how to work with actors and work with the director. You're smart, and you're a natural producer.
What's a producer, I asked?
You're the glue. You help the director execute his/her vision in addition to getting the actors going and helping them try out new things and see what works. You can do this, he said.
I looked at him confused having heard of the term "producer" before - but honestly never understanding who those people were or what they were doing.
I then wrote out my first one act play, a take on the popular Scrooge - and I knocked it out. of. the. freaking. park.
A+ ... my first one in Mr. V's class.
I had SO MUCH FREAKING FUN getting to be behind the scenes and writing the story out. I didn't necessarily need to be in the spotlight to enjoy being a part of everything. (I actually preferred it even more as the spotlight was my "go to" and producing was outside of my comfort zone.) I was in the spotlight because I knew nothing else - that was the place where I could express myself. But PRODUCING was the place where I found my jam ... my home. I've always been someone who is quick at making decisions and always trusting my gut, so there I was 11 years old saying we're cutting this, moving this around, wah wah wah. I took my skills as a dancer and could feel the rhythm and the movement of a story, and all I had to do was choreograph how to make it all work.
It. Was. Awesome. and still to this day one of my happiest school memories.
The year then went by in the blink of an eye and before I knew it - June was upon us.
I was sad that my time with Mr. V was coming to an end but I was excited to take the lessons he had taught me and apply it to my future.
On one of the last days of school I got a piece of mail saying that I had qualified to be the "Student of the Year."
Say whhaaatttt, I thought as I handed the note to my parents. What is this??
Wow, they said - it looks like you've been nominated by your teachers to be the Student of the Year.
Now, I had been Student of the Month at some point during the year my ENTIRE life in school - but this was new. Student. Of. The. Year. Wow wow wow!
I then went to the ceremony held in a conference room in our school, and Mr. V walked in with a big trophy a few minutes later.
I stared out at my peers. There are so many of us, and all of these kids are so smart ... there's no WAY I am going to get this, I thought, but at least it felt good to be here. (And I truly, truly meant that btw. I was not a straight A student ... and I was literally with the best of the best.)
Mr. V begins talking ...
I remember on the first day of school this year seeing this little kid walking into my class and knowing he or she had something special. This person not only worked hard on their grades, but was also an active ear to his/ her peers. This person has helped out above and beyond what was required and displays leadership skills that makes us all confident that he or she will go far in life.
He then raises the trophy - this is why this year our 1997 Student of the Year goes to Miss Jen Friel.
I heard my name come out of his mouth and my jaw dropped.
But but but, Tommy is so much smarter than me!! But, but, but Hans is going to be a SUPER famous musician ... what?!?!? ME??!?!?!!!! Why ME?!!??!!?
I was literally shocked ... again ... but I stood up as the audience started clapping. I was then handed the trophy as one of the teachers came up and took a polaroid picture of me.
I couldn't even smile ... I couldn't BELIEVE I was selected.
I then started tearing up as I hugged Mr. V. I had never felt special growing up being so tortured emotionally by my extended family. They ASSURED me over and over that my brother was the special one, and I was merely dead weight. To get this kind of recognition from someone I cared SO MUCH FOR absolutely changed my life.
This means so much to me, I said holding back the tears. Thank you, I'm going to do everything to make you proud.
Later that year my family then moved to West Hartford, but Mr. V and I still kept in touch. I would send him letters in the mail thanking him for all the reassurance that I was doing something right with my life, and that I meant something ... to someone.
I then finished high school early and in June of 2002 decided to move to NYC to study at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Was moving to NYC to live alone in a studio apartment at 17 nuts? Sure! But Mr. V assured me and my parents that I was going in the right direction - I just had to let go and see what was out there.
Before I left my parents threw me a going away party. At that point I was completely estranged from my dad's side of the family, and most of my mom's - so the "family" side of things was pretty slim.
I have a surprise for you, my mom said on the day of my party.
What is it, I asked?
I don't know, she said. Why don't you go answer the door!
I then ran down the hall as the doorbell rang.
I reach the front door as I open it.
I then see Mr. V standing in front of me.
OHMYGOD! I scream as I go in for a bear hug!!
Mr. V!! I can't believe you're here and so stylish as usual, I say referencing his eye patch.
He laughs (he had the best laugh ever btw) as he tells me he has eye cancer, but it was no big deal.
I don't even register the "c" word as I was just SO FREAKING EXCITED that he was here to see me off on my journey that he encouraged me to take!!!
All throughout the party I would look over at Mr. V dominating the room. Everyone was always so drawn to him, and he had the entire room captivated with his stories.
Nothing has changed, I thought.
Over the last 10 years I had kept in touch with Mr. V - even skyping him in November of 2010. I told him all about my adventures, and how I finally found my "niche" in entertainment.
I started a website, I told him. Social media is a great way to not only get to tell stories but I can combine my love for entertainment and technology. It's everything that I've ever wanted to do with my life!!!
You're doing it, Kid! I'm so proud of you Friel.
I smiled knowing that his 1997 Student of the Year had made him proud.
He then told everyone about my website and suddenly I was flooded with Facebook messages from his friends and family.
That Skype call was the last time I talked to Mr. V.
On Tuesday of this week, as I was just starting a campaign to get the attention of Virgin America, I saw this message on Facebook ...
I stood up from my computer and went into the kitchen sobbing.
And not just sobbing ... crying. from. my. soul. Like Steve Jobs, this man was SO wonderful and SO larger than life, you start to believe someone like this could actually never die. The man had cancer for TWELVE YEARS and still lived to tell the tale.
I was inconsolable. I focused on executing the campaign - but I was emotionally just gone.
A piece of my childhood died today, I thought. No going back, only moving forward with the lessons I learned from Mr. V.
It took me two days, but on Thursday, I finally messaged his wife and his daughter expressing my condolences. His wife's response back broke my heart ...
It has been 15 years since I sat in Mr. V's class - but he was right. I DID go into the entertainment industry, and while acting came naturally to me, I found my calling when it came to writing and producing.
Social media may not have been around in 1997 but my devotion to storytelling within the medium did get the attention of some TV peeps, and I am currently pitching my first scripted TV show with the help of the people responsible for Wedding Crashers, Elf, and Meet the Fokers.
You know no big deal.
I am who I am today because of this man. Given my low self esteem and lack of confidence in middle school it would have been SO easy to succumb to the peer pressure of drugs or alcohol. Instead, all I wanted to do was make Mr. V proud and prove to him that he was right, and that I COULD make it and make him proud.
In honor of his memory I devoted our last Tuesday Trivia Night to him ...
For the record, we won.
So much love to his friends and family during this time. He touched so many lives, and will be missed forever. xoxoxo