In the beginning…

When I was in the fourth grade, a man named Daraj Maxfield came to our school to immerse us into the world of theater. Valencia Elementary School didn’t have much of an arts program at the time, so we had no idea what to expect. When my class had its first session, Daraj (he was never Mr. Maxfield) explained that the school was going to put on a show, and that every student in the school was going to be part of it.

I was terrified. Up to that point, my life had consisted of being a top student (I got all smiley faces on my report card other than in handwriting, for which I earned a frowny face), playing Dungeons & Dragons, memorizing Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (this was 1980), and that was about it. It is safe to say that I wasn’t the most popular kid in class. The idea of standing up in front of the entire school–having all those eyes on me–sent a shiver down my spine and gave me a punch in the gut.

Daraj’s vision for the show (which was, in fact, going to be an evening assembly for parents, teachers, friends, and anyone else they could stuff into the audience) was for each individual class to perform its own skit. The skits for the Kindergarten classes were obviously quite simple and short, with each grade taking on more and more elaborate work culminating in the sixth grade classes which would put on actual scenes.

The skit for my fourth grade class consisted of a family opening presents on Christmas morning. Almost everyone would be part of one of the presents that the mom, dad, son, and daughter would open. You had seven kids working together to be a table saw, five kids being a mixer, etc. The thing was, anyone who was part of a present had to stand still and silent for most of the scene. They started on stage, still as statues. Then the family entered and ‘opened’ their gifts one by one. When a gift was opened, the kids making up that gift would move and pretend to be the gift for a few seconds before going back to being still as the scene moved on to the next gift. Two kids were the Christmas tree, and they didn’t move during the entire scene!

Early on in rehearsals, it became very obvious that I could not stand still to save my life. I think I started as part of the table saw, but I fidgeted too much, Daraj switched me with the boy he’d cast to play “Boy.” Just like that, I had a part. I had lines. Three of them.

I wanted to die. My inability to stand still had forced me out of the shadows and into the spotlight. My parents were thrilled, of course. Mom even made me a rather ridiculous lime-green pajama suit to wear as a costume. But I dreaded every rehearsal…

…until I didn’t. Somewhere along the way, I began to look forward to the rehearsals. I would wait off-stage, then rush on with boundless enthusiasm. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d fallen in love with theater. I’d found my calling.

The night of the assembly came. Daraj started it off by tugging at everyone’s heartstring. He had a sixth-grader start the show alone on stage reading the evening news, and then the rest of the kids slowly walked into the auditorium carrying candles and singing Silent Night. By the time the first Kindergarten class went on stage, the entire room was in tears. It was only years later that I learned Daraj had stolen the idea from Simon and Garfunkel.

As the show proceeded, I became more and more excited. Finally, it was our turn. I had a blast and was the hit of the show. My three lines became five or six as my penchant for ad-libbing took hold. When the show was over, people came up to me and told me how much they’d enjoyed my performance. Kids congratulated me, even ones that generally didn’t know I existed. I was in Heaven.

That was the moment I became an actor.

You always hear people talk about the one teacher that inspired them or meant the most to them or had the greatest impact. For me, that was Daraj, a visiting artist who spent a couple weeks with us putting together a Christmas show in the fourth grade.

As fate would have it, our paths crossed again five years later. I was a Freshman at Aptos High School and had gone all-in on acting. Somehow, and I don’t recall how, I learned of a community show called Peace Child that was holding auditions in the area metropolis of Santa Cruz, California. It had already had a run, and was now casting for a second run that would also become a brief West Coast summer tour. The show is about an American boy who meets a Soviet girl. They become friends and, together, more or less end the Cold War through the power of their friendship (this was 1985). Aside from the two leads, the rest of the cast were either adults or ensemble. The girl who had played the lead in the first run was doing the part again, but for whatever reason (and I never found out why), they asked the boy who had done the lead originally to re-audition rather than just give him the part.

I auditioned and was called back, along with the original lead and one other boy. I assumed the entire time that they were going to give the part back to their original lead, but they didn’t. They gave it to me. We had a long run in Santa Cruz, then toured to three cities during the summer: Stockton, California; Laguna Beach, California; and Eugene, Oregon. That summer was monumental in my emotional and personal growth. I travelled with the troupe (me, my co-lead, and about twelve adults), learned a lot about myself as an actor, met an amazing array of people, and even, in Eugene, had my first kiss (Awkward, to say the least).

Peace Child, 1985. I’m the one in the middle. Daraj is the guy wearing the not-really-a-tux on the right.

So the two most formative events of my childhood are both inexorably tied to Daraj Maxfield. I have never forgotten him, and not just because of his unique name. I remember his smile, his laugh, his openness, his trust.

For the past couple of years, I’ve told myself I should look him up on social media or the internet. I couldn’t imagine it would be hard. It’s not like there are a thousand other Daraj Maxfields out there. But I always put it off. No reason, just laziness. Plus, what would I say if I found him? The only time in the past 35 years I’d even seen him was when I attended a community production of Camelot and he happened to be playing King Arthur. Even then, I don’t recall going backstage to say hi.

So this morning, I finally did it. I looked him up.

He died two months ago, on April 25, 2020. He was 69 years old.

He will never know just how much he meant to me or how he was such an important part of my life. It is safe to say that without him, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. He was the catalyst, the spark that sent me on my way. More importantly, he always believed in me. He believed in that wiggly fourth-grader enough to give him a speaking role, and he believed in that lanky high school freshman enough to cast him as a lead in his travelling show. That’s a lot of belief.

Thinking about this, about the effect a single individual had on my life over such a brief period of time, has made me consider all the chances I’ve had and continue to have to make a similar impression on someone else. Between my school visits, my theater camps, my work as a creative writing teacher, my after school improvisation classes, and more, I’ve come into contact with hundreds of kids over the last few years.

Every time I work with a child, I have a chance to make an impression. To help that girl or boy discover something in themselves they didn’t know was there. The same is true for any teacher, of course, and most educators have touched the lives of thousands more than I. But the next time I’m working with kids in whatever capacity it may be, I plan on keeping this thought at the forefront of my mind.

Maybe I can be somebody’s Daraj.