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Mrs. Bonnington

Mrs. Bonnington


The passage of half a century sometimes creates heroes of villains and saints of ordinary people. Mrs. Bonnington was probably not a saint, but she was a great teacher and a wonderful person. I am ashamed to say I know next to nothing of her personal life or history. While I was in Drama for 3 years, in all that time I never bothered to ask or perhaps she just declined to share much of her personal information with me. Like most teen-age boys, I was probably too self-involved to elicit much biographic information about any of my teachers, even my favorite. That said, Mrs. Bonnington was the epitome of what I understood to be a Lady, with all the class and reverence the term implied. I used to imagine all sorts of tragic, glorious and mysterious pasts for her. In my fevered imagination she had travelled to England to study at Oxford, met and secretly married Lord Bonnington, then was tragically widowed during The Great War. She fled to the Theatre as a balm to her broken heart. After some triumphant years on the English and American stage she had come to California with a touring troop of actors and decided to retire and teach.

As you see, I never lacked for the dramatic, in my mind at least. As a teacher she pulled performances out of me that I would never have even imagined possible, in simple everyday drama exercises. I remember one particular day when she asked us to play two roles from the same scene and do our best to make both characters come alive. Predictably, I chose the scene from “Rebel Without A Cause” between James Dean and Jim Backus in which a young “Jim” is fighting to get his father to stand up against his domineering mother or, at the very least forcefully forbid his estranged son from leaving the house. He wants guidance, order, structure from his genial parent, not a ‘pal’. I chose the scene, of course, to show the girls in the class how much I could emulate the great Dean, thus cover myself in at least a hint of the Dean persona. But, Mrs. B, did not let me settle for this superficial imitation of the movie script. “I want to see the father, Jim. Not Jim Backus the actor, but Jim’s father. The character as you understand him. Don’t worry about the son, Jim. You are Jim and that will show easily, but see his father. As the father, feel the fear of losing your son and being helpless to stop him or protect him from a world in which you are not totally at ease yourself. To make both characters come alive, focus on the father and Jim will arise on his own. (I am sure I simply missed the psychological implications of all the “Jim”s involved.) Having complete trust in her as a teacher, I reached deep inside and pulled out everything I understood about fatherhood at 15, which was my experiences with my own father, of course, and immersed myself in the father role. When the scene was finished, the classroom was absolutely silent. My eyes were still filled with tears. The astonished faces of my classmates told me my characters had been dramatic, maybe even believable, and most of them said later they had clearly seen two separate characters. Mrs. Bonnington’s smile validated my effort. For that brief moment I was an Actor.

A few years later, Mrs. Bonnington gave me the only advice she ever gave me about pursuing acting as a profession. I told her I was thinking of going to Los Angeles to try to find work in films or television. Or maybe go to NYC to try to get on the Legitimate Stage. I asked her if she believed I had the talent to succeed as an actor. She replied: “Jim, you have as much talent as any student I have ever had..... But.... I don’t know if you have the deep desire to act. The hunger that drives most actors, or any artist, to succeed. It is a cruel business, often filled with more rejection than recognition, unbelievable pain and fear of failure. Only you know how badly you want, no need, to act. Without fame or fortune, which come only to a fortunate few, do you have the burning need to act, in large parts and small, to sustain you for years, perhaps your whole life, to toil in anonymity just for the love of acting?” Mrs. Bonnington knew, I think, that had I failed, or perhaps worse yet succeeded, the business might well have destroyed me. As a Poor kid from Palermo my greatest desire was to succeed, at something. I had little support for, or even tolerance of, dreams. I needed more certainty. So a month later I joined the Air Force and after two tours went on to U.C.L.A.;

Today, I am happily retired, married, with a loving family. I gained neither fame nor fortune. I never did become an Actor, not even in Little Theatre. Some 20 years after our last conversation, I finally realized that what I was driven to do was help mold young minds, as a Teacher. I taught 5th grade for 20 years in Watts, California. I became a writer and a teacher, mostly because “Mrs. B “ (“Lady Lorelei” in my imagination) taught me to dig deep within myself and to better understand myself than I ever could have without knowing her. Today, as my own ex-students occasionally call “Mr.D” and tell me how I have positively affected their lives, I think often of Mrs. Bonnington. I realize now, as good as she was at developing actors, she was even better at developing minds. I can only hope she would be proud of one of her old Drama students .

Jim Davis; Class of '62

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