For a drama teacher, Richard Zaruba – Z, as he was known – was not a dramatic man. But, over his 30 years of teaching theater at Grimsley High School in Greensboro, he had a dramatic effect on many people.
Here’s how he affected me.
On my first day at Grimsley, I was a new kid; painfully shy, I didn’t know what to expect or who I’d meet.
Then, I walked into my first Drama II class.
More accurately, I descended into the class. The drama room sprawled under the stage, and students typically used a back entrance down concrete stairs. It was a repurposed basement, a cavern filled with couches and scripts, flanked by the girls’ dressing room on the left and the boys’ to the right.
Drama II, as the numerals imply, was a sophomore-level class, so many obvious friends chatted amongst themselves. I quietly took a seat.
Then Z walked into the room.
He too descended, but from the orchestra pit, a slight man with big, light-blue eyes and a ruddy mustache. When he turned to his desk, he didn’t sit behind it — he sat on top of it, cross-legged.
His presence filled the room. But he didn’t intimidate or impose, because Z was not a dramatic man.
His stance, perched easily on the desk, made that dingy hovel feel like home. And it became home for me and everyone else in the drama department.
Z told us in his fantastic voice — a slightly twangy, light baritone — to pick a partner and simply talk about any topic for a few minutes, maintaining eye contact and complete attention.
A shock of panic. I didn’t know anyone; how could I talk to them, let alone look them in the eye?
A gorgeous girl with curly, dark hair and deep green eyes turned around in her desk and introduced herself. Remarkably, I replied without missing a beat, anxiety dissipated. She talked in her smooth alto about her family and her German roots. For my turn, I babbled about WWII airborne operations, because I’m a huge nerd.
That’s how I made my first friend at Grimsley. Z introduced us, passively, as he introduced me to many life-long friends.
It was the first way he instilled confidence in me.
Years later, I watched that dark-haired girl marry one of my best friends — we’d also forged our friendship in Z’s drama class.
But those are stories for a different venue. I’m talking about Z.
Over the following years, Z continually inspired confidence in me I’d never realized, and he did it with the ease of perching on his desk.
For one, Z was the best director I ever acted for, because he was very hands-off.
You might misunderstand this as apathy or incompetence, but that’s not the case. We were teens, but Z knew we could draw the best from any given character without too much pushing from his side. He basically taught us, “Just feel what you feel is right, and it’ll come through in your performance.”
I discovered self-confidence in performing. That self-confidence I gained runs throughout my life, whether I’m interviewing for a job or asking a woman out.
It’s largely because of Z — his influence led me to be comfortable in being myself.
Z noticed talent in me and recommended that I apply to Weaver Academy to study drama. But I didn’t want to leave my friends.
Moreover, I didn’t want to leave Z.
I graduated in 2006, and though I’d once dreamed of being the next Adrien Brody, I decided to study music, then writing. Z retired in 2008, after his youngest daughter graduated. I lost touch.
Then I heard he had brain cancer.
On Black Friday of 2013, Z’s students from generations past reconvened on Grimsley’s stage, and we recorded messages to send to the man who’d so profoundly affected each of our lives.
It was the least we could do.
This past Christmas Eve, one of the best friends I’d met in that drama class a dozen years before called to tell me Z had passed that day.
The memorial was held the following Monday at St. Pius X Catholic Church, attended by many former students and colleagues. The church choir and band, with whom Z had played guitar and mandolin, accompanied the service.
I spotted Z’s guitar — an old Ovation, polished and looking brand-new — in the hands of one of the guitarists.
I tried to control my emotions, but broke down when a former protégé’s eulogy recalled Z’s pre-show ritual.
In those quiet, intense moments before each premiere, we’d all hold hands in a circle on the stage, and Z would ask, “You know why they call it a play?”
A beat, though we knew the answer.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” he’d say. “So, let’s play.”
His peace dispelled my stage-fright butterflies, replacing them with free, easy confidence.
In his way, Z taught confidence, not drama.
After all, Z was not a dramatic man.