Growing up in the 1980’s, school was very interesting. We were a generation raised by the baby boomers, and they wanted more for their kids than what they had. A lot of our teachers were baby boomers as well. In Cross River, NY, if you went to John Jay High School, everyone knew who Gil Freeman was. Gil was the Choir teacher, the Drama teacher, and ran the plays as well as the high school variety show.
Gil died last week from a horrible accident that shocked the alumni of my high school. As I went through his Facebook page and saw all the messages to Gil, many memories came flooding through my mind. I first met Gil when I was in 7th grade. I was in the choir, and I remember having to walk up this mountain of stairs to get from the junior high to the high school. And of course Gil’s “Annex” as it was called, was on the other side of the high school campus, diagonally at that!
Gil and I didn’t get along back then. I was an obnoxious almost-teen who didn’t care about school. I recall getting kicked out of Gil’s class often. When I got to the high school in 10th grade (at the time in my district high school started in 10th grade), I reconnected with Gil. He would catch me smoking behind his annex, but he never ratted me out. I tried out for the Spring play, which was a series of short plays. I was to play the King from Tim Stoppard’s parody of Hamlet. My mom and I made the costume, and God bless her, I looked like the Burger King from the old commercials.
But when Gil and I got along the best was when I was given the stage hand position for the high school variety show. I was the cloaked figure running around changing props between skits. I remember hanging out under the table in front of the stage while Gil played a piece on the piano. I can’t remember what it was, but I was right in front of him. I watched his fingers move. And his face, I will never forget it. It became one with the music. His very soul was completely entwined with the beautiful sounds he made those nights. I always respected him for that. One night when he was playing, he opened his eyes and looked at me and just smiled. This was a man completely at peace with the world. The piano was his sanctuary, his place where the talents God gave him shined the brightest.
I was in his drama class the next year, but Gil seemed different. He could always get angry, but there was a sadness in his eyes. His mother was very sick. Gil loved his mom more than anything. When someone has a long illness, it can numb the soul, but the sadness can always be seen in the eyes. I empathized with him, but I could never truly understand until many years later when I watched my own mom go through a long illness.
I think the best memories I have with Gil are from that drama class. The times when he would give us improvs to do, and all of us would be rolling on the floor laughing by the time it was done. It was in these rare times where I would see Gil smile a little bit more than normal. My high school years had some of the best memories because of Gil Freeman. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the music he taught, or how to sing. What Gil did best was bring people together. As individuals, many of us were a mess. We were teenagers. We were jocks, drammies, nerds, cheerleaders, weird, crazy, and confused. When we were on Gil’s stage, none of that mattered.
Twenty years later, I reconnected with Gil on Facebook. He retired in the early 1990s and he was enjoying the hell out of life. He was blessed as one of those teachers who was friends with his former students the rest of his life. I remember one time Gil’s Facebook account got hacked and he was sending messages about investment. I knew in a heartbeat this was not Gil Freeman. I notified him right away. That was the last time I remember having an active role with Gil.
While Gil may have had an impact on myself, it was far greater with so many others and I know their worlds are a little bit less without Gil in it. Some of the faces we see on our tv and movie screens had Gil’s touch. There will never be another Gil. Please feel free to share your thoughts and memories of Gil on here as a tribute to a great man.