My last couple of years of high school I participated and competed in Speech & Debate (also known as Forensics). I did some humorous interpretation (HI), some dramatic interp (DI), some original oratory (OO – are you getting the hang of the initials now?), and even dabbled in the Debate part (not my preferred event; we did it as a favor for another team. That’s a story for another time). I was pretty good in my area/region, took home a lot of trophies, and came very close at least once to going to the State Championship. It was a very good time. We were coached by a tremendously talented English teacher, Ray Schaefer, who often had the team (and other students) up to his ranch near Palmdale for overnights, picking cherries from his orchard, playing pool in his barn, eating meals with his family… So besides the terrific public speaking/performance experience, being involved helped us grow holistically, interacting with our peers from our own and other schools, traveling and competing with a diverse population of performers and coaches, immersing ourselves in works of literature and entertainment, truly growing. But this post isn’t about me.
I can recall the titles, and even some of the lines from much of the work I performed, but I don’t remember much of anything about my school teammates’ work during that time, with one notable exception. I was lucky enough to be around to see Adam Gordon join our troupe and (as a rookie, I believe, in his sophomore or junior year) interpret P.D. Eastman’s classic “Are You My Mother?” for the Children’s Storytelling event.
The interpretive events (HI, DI, Storytelling, and others) were not exactly acting; there were rules in place about maintaining eye contact with the audience (and judges), and most people limited the range of motion and movement they employed because most of our competitions took place in school classrooms, with all the desks still set up, and you never knew what obstacles you would run into in an unfamiliar room if you blocked a scene a certain way and needed to move around.
Adam’s talent, though, couldn’t be constrained by these limitations. I know how foggy and unreliable memory can be, but I refuse to accept that my recollection of his performance is anything but accurate. He ran all over the room. He did amazing voices. He came right up to people’s faces – the audience, judges, everyone – to ask, “Are you my mother?” in the little bird’s voice. Watching him perform was transformative. It was probably the first time I saw someone “own a room,” and I learned a lot from him, even though he was a year behind me in school. I learned about interpreting and performing the written word, about channeling and sharing creativity, and maybe most of all about basic dedication to a craft and investment in yourself. Every time I saw Adam perform – and I saw him in practice and competition many times – I saw him pour all his effort into it. I still see him often in my mind’s eye, full of energy, a force of creative nature.
I can say without exaggeration that Adam’s energy has inspired and influenced me for decades, as I’ve done public speaking gigs, taken on tasks I wasn’t entirely prepared for but was eager to learn, and, ultimately, when I read stories, including “Are You My Mother?”, to my own kids.
It was thus particularly jarring to learn today that Adam Gordon died on January 3 of a rare cancer he’d been fighting for a couple of years. I felt, to use a tired but appropriate cliche, like I’d been punched in the gut, and that feeling stayed with me all day. I’m connected with many schoolmates from that period on Facebook, and I have many other friends who have offered words of comfort throughout the day, but the sense of loss is enormous. I’d been out of touch with Adam since I graduated from high school, but feel like I’ve lost a constant presence in my life.
Adam was married (to his high school sweetheart, if my eyes don’t deceive me, based on a picture of them on his Facebook page) and had two children, who I’m told go to our high school alma mater, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies. I mourn with them, pray that they know no more sorrow, and assure them that Adam’s memory will be – indeed, already has been – a blessing.
Please, take a moment or ten to tell those closest to you how much you love them. And consider making a donation to the Tower Cancer Research Foundation, the MD Anderson Cancer Center, or one of the many other cancer research and treatment centers working to eradicate this awful thing from our midst. And look at Adam’s art, the stuff he created with his own hands as he was fighting this battle that eventually took his life, and rejoice in the capacity of a human being to conquer the unconquerable and leave a powerful, lasting, positive legacy even when faced with incomprehensible tragedy.
Hawk, by Adam Gordon. Published by his family with the Facebook post announcing his death on Jan. 3.