Beauty and the Beast – More Than A Fairy Tale

MeThis weekend opened the long awaited live action “remake” or re-imagining of the Disney animated modern classic Beauty and the Beast, a movie near and dear to me for many and some complicated reasons. No longer a “cartoon” film but one with live actors, this version is likely to affect me even more.

The “original” premiered back in the day – a phrase I use too much as I get closer and closer to 50 this coming October. And really 1991 wasn’t all that much back in the day considering I started out in 1967. Disney’s great new era of animated features began two years earlier with its release of the fabulously entertaining The Little Mermaid. I don’t remember why I wasn’t fully enticed by Ariel (though I can guess) at the time but when Beauty and the Beast was released, I became a grown up fan of each new annual animated feature. Brain cells storing the memory of my first viewing of what would become an Academy Award Best Movie nominee are long gone, but I do remember being as enchanted as countless little girls wanting to be Belle. And I remember being hopeful for the message that I spread today…that people need to look beyond what is on the outside…that people who look different are regular people …not to be afraid of but worthy to befriend and perhaps even love. I didn’t relate so much to Belle (though I loved her love of books and her feisty independence) as I did to the Beast. Though many believe I have self-acceptance of my body differences there was a long time when I thought I was a freak, a grade or two below Beast level and to be honest, those thoughts rise up every now and again.

Belle, the plucky village girl dreams beyond the typical role of a woman in a provincial village with “stuck in the past” residents including the overbearing and chauvinistic Gaston. Gaston only wants Belle because Belle doesn’t want him. And later when Gaston discovers the Beast, he becomes enraged – how could anyone turn him away for a head horned pawed covered with animal fur man beast? This story “as old as time” does not need me to recap how it ends. Instead I write this about how Hollywood and Society still don’t understand how this is too much an one sided story and why it affects me so personally.

The summer before I was to enter college a well-meaning important person in my life had wanted me to be careful at campus parties. Though Smith was and still is a women’s college, male students from surrounding colleges as well as town residents were known to attend house parties. For various reasons that can wait for another blog, I did not participate in usual HS social activities. My inner party animal (pun intended) was waiting to get out. This person knew I was excited to leave home and enjoy all that college had to offer yet worried I was too naïve and inexperienced with partying situations. She later told me she agonized over how to properly prepare me for potential danger. She finally blurted, “Geri, be careful at parties where guys are likely to drink too much and become drunk. A group may see you and decide to make wagers as to who can fu@& the handicapped girl…” Horrified is too much an understatement of how I felt in that moment. I could be seen as a freak experiment? I had finally emerged from my almost 5 year self-imposed moratorium on talking to the boys in my class because in 7th Grade the all too common puberty related self-doubts took a stranglehold of my self-esteem.

I had always known I was different – having congenital deformities of all parts skeleton. I wore unbending prosthetics and my malformed arms/hands/fingers only reached below my bust line. My below the waist body is even more weird — my ugly legs and feet that don’t allow me to walk. I had been used to stares in public and questions of “what’s wrong with her?” as early as I had conscious awareness. I was actually an outgoing little girl, as plucky as Belle herself I believe until adolescence and hormones took over. And I had talked to, even kicked at times, the boys in my classes up until 6th Grade. Finally by the time 2nd half of HS Senior Year arrived, I emerged from my shell and began communicating, however difficult, with some of the guys. Yet I waited too long and I was not invited to my Senior Prom – again chalking it up to that no one wanted to go with the funny looking Geri even as I had grown up with all my classmates in our small school district.

And now this special woman was warning me that again I could be seen as freak just as I was keen to start a new chapter of my life, determined to push myself out into the world – even if it was an all-female college.

See the connection now as to why I feel a kinship to the Beast? Yet life is not a fairytale with all happy endings. No magical transformations swirling in cinematic glory. And the Beast was a guy who was loved by a woman – the way it is generally in both reel and real life. Many more men with physical disabilities are likely to be married. We see this in many more feature films and our everyday world. Women are traditional caregivers. In my many hospitalizations over the years, several in rehab settings, I’ve seen women therapists have relationships with their male patients. The Boston Marathon, while horrendous in its initial terror and tragedy, has in time brought out stories of nurses and other health care providers who have married male survivors with various life changing injuries/conditions. And while I, embarrassingly, have never been in a romantic relationship, I have nonetheless been interested in a few gentlemen over the years. And a couple of times, mothers of a two men I liked would intimate that I should not get my hopes up, that I was not wife material and could not provide a home – in other words, I would be a burden. For those who don’t know my background, I was abandoned by my biological parents at birth – was I too much a beast baby and perhaps would be a burden? These questions have followed me throughout my life.

I still want to see this new version of Beauty and the Beast, for the music I love, for the banter between Lumiere and Cogsworth, for the fairy tale ending that true love sees beyond the beastly exterior. I still want to have that hope for myself.

Thank You, Mr. Pryor: An Apology, An Appreciation

J. Allan Pryor’s Life Legacy

For all the tributes I share on FB, most are for celebrated or noteworthy people in public life, whether an actor of yesteryear or an actor gone too soon or a beloved astronaut, etc. These are people who made an impact on my life one way or another…whether nostalgic memories or of historic importance.

This tribute is for a gentleman who is noteworthy to thousands of students he taught, of which I was one and is worthy of a blog entry dedicated in his memory. He made an impact on my life in ways he probably wasn’t aware of and I regret to this day, now that it’s too late, that I never thanked him for. And nor did I apologize for behavior I am not proud of looking back on. In fact, I have not been proud of myself for a long time now and which I have known for years I should have asked forgiveness.

J. Allan Pryor’s obituary notes him as a teacher first…”teacher, advisor, friend, beloved uncle and brother…” Mr. Pryor taught seminar style around a large table (or two pushed together?) in a room off the Library.

Believe it or not, I was a very shy insecure HS Student, especially after returning Junior year having missed the latter 2/3rd of Sophomore year to first hellish Spinal Surgery. I was accepted into Junior’s Advanced English Class only after my 10th Grade Teacher/home tutor – the lovely Mrs. Levy who made delicious brownies – “recommended” me to the teacher. For all of Junior Year I never felt as though I belonged (another story for another time). So when it came time to apply for AP English, I was nervous but knew at least I would have to go through the same process…essay writing and an “interview” (I think though can’t exactly remember). And there were fewer slots available. Not everyone from our 11th Grade class would move on. My only hang up was that I knew Mrs. Levy and Mr. Pryor were close colleagues. I truly wanted to be accepted on my merit. Long story a bit shorter, I was accepted into AP English …a class of Classics and European Readings mostly, taught College style. Several of my friends, girls of course as I had barely talked to the boys since 7th grade, were in the class, too, so I felt “safe” as long as I would sit next to them. Didn’t always work out that way naturally.

Senior Year had barely started when I intuitively knew Mr. Pryor liked me …admired me. I was a wee one when I first detected these types of reactions from people. This kind of – what seemed to me – unearned admiration was not welcomed. I’ve always wanted to be liked for my intelligence, my caring, my humor (as lame as it is sometimes), my writing, and my outreach.

Now comes the hard part …I took advantage of Mr. Pryor’s good will. I’d turn in papers late several times. And I’d never be penalized (not that I can remember which is why I’ve always felt guilty). In all the 30+ years since, I was and am embarrassed that I never apologized. Had looked forward to him coming to our HS Reunion in Oct. 2015 thinking I’d finally do what was right. Sadly, Mr. Pryor wasn’t feeling well enough that day to come in the evening and sent his regrets. We always think there will be another opportunity to say what we know needs to be said. One would think I finally learned the painful truth the last time I spoke to my Dad on the day he died, leaving the most important statement unspoken. There is no excuse for not picking up the phone save sheer cowardice and shame.

With the long overdue apology comes appreciation that has grown with each passing decade…never more so than when I watch Jeopardy and Franz Kafka/The Metamorphosis is favorite question to clues every few months. As much as I am happy I know the question, I still cringe as that story has haunted me (the reason why is for another time) from our reading of it for an overnight assignment. And possibly one of the best Pop Quizzes ever was Mr. Pryor having us “draw” main character Gregor after he wakes up. A teacher would certainly know immediately if any student had not done the homework. All the other works we read come to mind during countless Jeopardy clues, too!

There were many more memorable plays and books we read Senior year. And though I never knew why (another reason I should have made contact), Mr. Pryor inexplicably chose me to read one of the most famous soliloquies in all of literature…Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” Me of the shrill squeaky voice who practically never raised her short hand to answer a question. There were a few guys in our class with wonderfully expressive voices. And not to be sexist, I can think of a couple of girls who would have been great, too. I can’t imagine what my classmates thought. I knew I was horrified and practiced all that winter weekend, the cadence, the pronunciations, the inflections… What was he thinking? And now all these years later, I’m a public speaker. Can’t say that was precisely the beginning but perhaps Mr. Pryor saw something inside of me I was too insecure to at the time. Isn’t that what a great teacher is…one who sees what a student can’t see of oneself? I wish I knew if he knew what I’ve been doing with my presentations.

Another lasting lesson I learned the hard way was how to read peers’ work and offer comments. Simple “this is good writing” notes would not suffice. We were graded in part on our “critical review” of each other’s assignments. Yea, that was fun – Not! Unsurprisingly, I nearly always picked my friends’ papers – the girls! Until one day myself and another student were directed to the cafeteria to read one another’s papers (I think on Zorba the Greek – nearly 50 year old brain cells have been lost) since we had both turned in our assignments late and had not been in the binder left in the Library for classmates’ comments. Yep, the other student was one of the guys…one of the good guys, one of the cute guys. I enjoyed what ever book we had read and though I didn’t think my paper was all that, I did guess it was likely better than the one I was tasked to read. How could I write comments on a paper that wasn’t very good? And of a cute guy sitting across the table from me…one I barely said two words to ever. As I wrote above, he was one of the good guys and at one point he piped up, admitting his paper wasn’t great and I shouldn’t feel bad for being “critical” — a gallant gent letting me off another mortifying hook.

Madame Bovary proved to be a revelatory read as I actually had comments in response to Mr. Pryor’s questions – only as usual I’d whisper them to whichever friend I was sitting next to. This one friend this one time I caught began to yawn and stretch her hands as Mr. Pryor called my name. Seemed that M was pointing down at me…curse of being much shorter than everyone else. No one would ever admit how many times this had occurred previously but I then learned not to whisper anymore!

Back in the day, early in the school term, Seniors were assigned to write an autobiographical essay. I think (who knows – my timeline may be mixed up) this was to help us with our college essays. As usual, I procrastinated and struggled with what to write. There was the obvious topic but I tried to stray as much as possible. I wrote first of my Grandparents and eventually got around to the obvious. I was truthful no doubt about the pain, but I also ended the paper on an optimistic tone as I do believe that is what keeps me going. And I actually handed that paper in on time! I was, however, absent when graded papers were returned. Dear Mr. Pryor had suggested that classmates ask me to read it. Those assigned personal essays had not been left in the library binder for comments. I didn’t know until the next day when I sat down and another classmate – and a guy even — asked me to read my paper. I was very confused till somebody explained later. Oh the embarrassment once again…what did my classmates think…that I was the teacher’s pet? And this could be why I began to “test” Mr. Pryor’s good will…I wanted him to get frustrated with me. Probably didn’t help either that Senioritis set in early after being accepted to college in December. Yet I never succeeded because J. Allan Pryor was a generous soul…one I didn’t fully appreciate then.

Besides the serious topics of AP English, we also had fun. Mr. Pryor gave our class permission to celebrate Birthdays! My 17th Birthday came in October on a Monday and I was extremely grumpy that morning because no one had wished me a HB yet. Second period I came into our classroom and actually slammed my books on the table, a rare display for me at the time. Truthfully, not sure anyone noticed. Wasn’t long, though, before Sarah, Lisa and others brought out the baked Birthday goodies, singing along. Needless to say, I was delighted even if embarrassed while a year long tradition was started. Somehow it was always us girls who brought the snacks and desserts until Mr. Pryor shamed the guys. Last day of Senior Year, the guys went all out with fancy foods (with some help from Moms and Grandmothers), drink, and a coffee urn. What a feast we had to end a terrific year with each other.

AP English with Mr. Pryor was a highlight of my Senior Year at BHHS even as I didn’t fully embrace it till too late. The lessons I learned those months from a passionate teacher whether from literature or of life are timeless. I can only hope hundreds of other students thanked him enough so he knew what a great force he was at Byram Hills. And somehow I hope the indirect messages sent to him with the apology he was due from me were received. Even if they were, the message of thanks were not, save now here …where I believe he can still see what is being written, I pray.

Mr. Pryor, thank you for being one of BH’s beloved Teachers …you had quirks for sure and a wicked sense of humor, with a great intellect and a gentleness that could help the hardest to reach students. Don’t worry, I won’t include here that last question I asked you in the main office on final day of Senior Year when some had arranged a Hawaiian theme complete with plastic leis. I think I finally did shock him with my tongue in cheek potty mouth. Thank you for being one of my biggest fans when I didn’t deserve it. And thank you for pushing me out of my comfort zones (several times!). You were a teacher in the best sense, teacher and advisor. My condolences to your loving family and friends and to all the students who made the extra efforts to exchange correspondence with you these many years. You were a treasure here on earth. Enjoy reunions with all the former BH teachers gone …some long ago, others more recently. Please give my regards to Mrs. Levy if possible as I owe her an apology as well. Enjoy all the spiritual reunions with loved ones and happy encounters with any you may wish to discuss why this or that with!
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“I was happy, I knew that. While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek