Mr. Paulson

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I knew Lee Paulson ever since I was a baby. Story goes, my mom handed me off to him at church or somewhere when I was a newborn, and I ended up peeing all over him. He was an English teacher forever, and the drama director of everything our town ever saw. By the time I reached high school, he had retired from teaching, but he couldn’t quite let drama go. Or they wouldn’t let him. I’m not sure. Maybe both?

I remember after the new high school was built, he came and found 8th grade me in the lunch room. Could I help him out organizing the new costume rooms? One simply did not say “no” to Mr. Paulson. A little because he was so insistent and convincing, and a maybe little tiny bit out of fear. You see, Mr. Paulson liked to yell if the need arose. I’d always known him, so my level of fear was pretty small (which might just say that I knew to shut up and do what he wanted the first time). In any case, I said I could maybe help for a bit. Which is how I ended up backstage for the next five years.

It was fascinating to watch the man work. He was not a spring chicken. But I swear he had more energy and drive than all of us teenagers put together. He had a passion for theatre that I will probably never see again. And boy could he yell. Of course I know now that he yelled to get your attention. He yelled because he knew you could do better and try harder. He yelled because he expected and demanded your best. And when he got it? Oh my goodness. The feeling of seeing him proud was amazing.

I dragged my friend Trish in, and we lived backstage for those five years. Late, late nights. Weekends. Operating power tools with zero supervision. With the keys to anywhere in the school, which he handed to us so he wouldn’t misplace them. Whatever needed to be done. All the shows blend into one in my memory now. But I have so many memories.

I don’t remember which show it was, but I remember him mid-tirade walking backwards right off the stage. He fell to the floor. And then he popped right back up and finished yelling. He must have been around 70. Scared us all to death. But I think he hoped he scared us into what he was asking for in the first place.

One day Trish and I were building sets on our own, and Mr. Paulson offered to get us some lunch. He ran into town to Subway and brought us footlong subs, chips, cookies, and drinks. That seemed a little excessive. But he must have known something I didn’t, because I think I ate the whole blasted thing. 

He knew I loved James Dean and Natalie Wood. One year, we did Rebel Without a Cause. I was able to help with the window displays from my personal collection of James Dean paraphernalia, including a life-size cardboard cutout and several posters. He brought one of his own, which I was deeply in love with – all purples and blues with black and white James Dean in the center. Later, he gave it to me.

When I was a sophomore, all I wanted in the whole world was to not be in high school anymore. I did everything I needed to do so I could do post-secondary and take college classes my last two years. I took the ACT a year early, I went on my college visit – I got all my post-secondary ducks in a row. “You’ll miss out on high school!” people said. “Great!” I said. I will never ever forget when I went to tell Mr. Paulson about it. We were standing right in the middle of the auditorium. “Well, you’ll miss out on high school, and that might be what you want, but you’ll also miss out on the college experience.” I thought about that long and hard. If fitting in was what I wanted, I certainly wasn’t going to fit in at college as a 16 year old. Living 30 minutes away. Being at least two years younger than everyone else. Still technically in high school. I decided not to go. I will be forever grateful for that perspective when I needed it, because it ended up being the best decision for me.

Later, when I got married, he was there. Our wedding was family and close friends – only 76 people. But you’d better believe he was one of them, and I’m not sure which category he fell into – family or friend. Not that I would have ever considered calling him “Lee.” I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded, but there are just some people in life that you can’t call by their first name.

Mr. Paulson passed away on Saturday. He was 89. The loss for my hometown is incredible. If ever there was someone worthy of “legend” status, I’d say it’s him. But I’m even having trouble with the idea that the world no longer has him in it. I spend my days quietly going about my business. I can’t imagine he ever did a thing he wasn’t passionate about. He had a passion for teaching. A passion for directing. A passion for politics. A passion for his church. A passion for reading. A passion for empowering youth to reach their potential.

Every once and a while I think of something he said or did, and I’m still learning from him. I am so grateful. And looking forward to the day I can see him and say thank you again. I hope I can infuse a fraction of his passion for life into mine.

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