Forty-four years after I graduated from high school, I heard that one of my favorite teachers was not doing well. I was able to find an email address for his daughter. This is an edited and digested form of the letter I sent to her, for her to read to her father, Kermit Othello Skromme, who was an English teacher at Blackford High School in San Jose, California. Kermit Skromme died in 2015, but I’m thankful that I was able to let him know the impact he had on my life a couple of years before that.
The influence Kermit Skromme had on me was important, but it takes a bit of telling to explain why that is. So I’ll start with some background.
My father died when I was ten. A little over a year later, my mother was worried that my older brother might be turning into a deliquent teenager on her and she him enrolled in a church boarding school a hundred and fifty miles away. In a very short time I went from being part of a family of four to being a latch-key kid with a mother who worked nights. I clammed up emotionally and socially. I still did well in school, but I didn’t have much in the way of friendships and I spent a lot of time alone. I started high school at Del Mar High in San Jose. In my second year, my mother decided to move in order to leave behind the memories of our old house and have a fresh start. I ended up transferring halfway through the school year into Blackford High School, in the same school district as Del Mar. I had already had very little in the way of friends at Del Mar, but starting at a new school just set me all the way back to zero.
I never actually had a class with Mr. Skromme. I was one of a group of advanced placement kids who were a year ahead in English, and as a junior I was in Mr. Clark Jones’s senior English class. One of the seniors in the class was a fellow named Phil. Phil seemed really cool to me. He drove a Mini-Cooper, which to me was way cooler than some American muscle car. Phil had been cast as the lead in a production of Macbeth that Kermit Skromme was directing that year. Around the time rehearsals were starting, Mr. Jones had Phil speak to the class about the play, because they were looking for more people to fill out the cast. As Phil was going back to his seat after speaking, Phil looked me right in the eye. The cool senior who drove a Mini-Cooper and had the lead in a play looked at the all but invisible junior, and he told me directly that I should be in the play. This was way out of my comfort zone, but somehow Phil’s attention made me feel like this was something I needed to try.
I showed up at rehearsal after school that day and Mr. Skromme found some small parts for me in Macbeth. One part was lurking around as a third wheel to the two murderers in the script, but with no lines. The best part he found for me was combination of a servant and a messenger who both brought important news to Macbeth in the last act. So in the guise of “a servant”, my speaking stage debut went thusly:
[Enter a servant] (ie. me)
Macbeth: The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!
Where got’st thou that goose look?
Servant: There is ten thousand —
Macbeth: Geese, villain!
Servant: Soldiers, sir.
MacBeth: Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,
Thou lily-liver’d boy. What soldiers, patch?
Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine
Are counsellors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?
Servant: The English force, so please you.
Macbeth: Take thy face hence.
So my role here was to act really nervous while Phil bombarded me with Shakespearean insults. The nervousness came easily. The kid who could barely talk to people was up on the stage. My next entrance was to interrupt Macbeth from one of the most famous speeches in theater history. It was beautiful to wait in the wing while Phil as Macbeth belted out these words:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
[Enter a Messenger]
Enter a Messenger!!!! That was me. I got to walk onto the stage while those words were still hanging in the air. Even if I didn’t say them myself, I was a part of the thing which had those words in it! I was not subjected to quite the abuse of my previous entrance, but Macbeth doesn’t actually welcome me to the stage this time either:
Macbeth: Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.
Messenger: Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do it.
Macbeth: Well, say, sir.
I got to eventually spit out the one thing that Macbeth least wants to hear, something seemingly impossible which was foretold earlier in the play by witches and ghosts as a precursor of Macbeth’s doom:
Messenger: As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.
Macbeth: Liar and slave!
Messenger: Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so:
Within this three mile may you see it coming;
I say, a moving grove.
Macbeth: If thou speak’st false,
Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
Till famine cling thee: if thy speech be sooth,
I care not if thou dost for me as much.
I had the privilege of bringing Macbeth the worst possible news, the news that sealed his fate. While that production of Macbeth may not have sealed my fate it marked a profound shift in my life. Before Macbeth my life was turned inwards on itself, which is not particularly healthy for a teenager. Being involved in Macbeth opened up my world in so many ways. All of a sudden I had a bunch of friends in the drama kids. And they were so cool. They did outrageous creative things. I even ended up with my first girlfriend in someone who had helped with makeup and costumes. My world before and after Macbeth were two different places. I liked the “after” one whole lot better. When Kermit Skromme put on “The Taming of the Shrew” the next year, I was excited to do it all again as Gremio, the oldest of the suitors.
GREMIO: O this learning, what a thing it is!
I would have gladly done more of these Shakespeare plays if there had been time for more before high school ran out.. They were the best part of my life now. These Shakespeare productions that Kermit Skromme put on were one of the three theatrical productions every year. One of them was always a musical, but though I was loving the stage, I was not ready to dive into singing and dancing. Then, in the spring, there was the Senior Play, directed by a different teacher. So, skipping musicals, my only other opportunity to tread the boards was the Senior Play the last term of my last year. I tried out, but it was a small cast and I didn’t get chosen. However, after the rehearsals had already begun, one of the leads had to drop out, because his parents worried about his grades. It was me who stepped in and had to memorize more lines than anyone else in half the time as Chris in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”. I doubt I did much in the way of inspired acting, but I wasn’t the one who forgot lines on opening night and I stood on stage and gave whole speeches in front of an audience.
Chris: You can be better! Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside …
The first two years of high school, I was lost and alone, after Macbeth, the last two years I was alive, and it carried on into my life after high school. I did some more drama in college, but not a lot. However the love for Shakespeare stayed with me. The whole experience of being in Kermit’s Shakespeare productions opened me up to the creative side of the world.
I used to stop by Kermit Skromme’s from time to time with some of the other drama kids. I still have a mimeographed copy of Kermit’s recipe for home made mead, which I used a number of times back in the day.
I lost touch with Kermit Skromme some time in the 1970s as I entered into a life and career, but I can’t help but think that the path I took would likely have been different had I never met him. I didn’t enter a life of the theater, but I have been comfortable with public speaking to audiences in the hundreds all over the world, because what could possibly be any scarier than being on stage with Macbeth hurling strings of Shakespearean insults at me?
I don’t know how many times Kermit Skromme put on Shakespeare productions at Blackford, but the two I had the pleasure of participating in are like the fulcrum about which my life tipped. I was sliding into some kind of inward-looking very small life and the experience of theater opened up the world for me. I could never close myself up that small ever again and I thank Kermit Skromme for that.