The Accidental Mentor ... An Overdue Tribute

“A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”

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“Robin Hood!” He was shouting at the top of his lungs, “I’m going to cut your heart out with a spoon!” A spoon?! How ridiculous, I thought. Even at five years old my mind found that outrageous. It was Alan Rickman as the devil-may-care Sheriff of Nottingham chasing after Kevin Costner’s very American incarnation of Robin Hood in the 1991 Robin Hood film adaptation. This chase sequence was the first time I ever laid eyes on Mr. Rickman, and, from that moment on, I became a devoted yet respectful fan.

The film was playing in my grandmother’s home. It was during one of those weekends that were normally reserved for the next episode of The X-Files. She would pick me up from home every so often, and my youngest aunt would join us at the end of her after school job and pick up some food on her way home. I came to cherish these random TV and movie nights.

After watching Robin Hood an innumerable amount of times, I had all the best Alan Rickman one-liners memorized. I could even pinpoint the exact time-frame on the VHS where his scenes were featured. At one point, Guy of Gisborne asks, “Why a spoon, cousin? Why not an axe?” The Sheriff does not miss a beat and says, “Because it’s dull, you twit. It’ll hurt more.” Duh! I rolled my eyes as if that were so obvious; forget that I had no idea what twit meant.

Eventually, I looked it up in the dictionary, and, thus, began my first research adventures. I also looked up Mr. Rickman’s filmography. It was my intent to watch some of his other movies; I was certain he would be just as good an actor in all of them, and I was not disappointed.

He was Hans Gruber, the archetypal British villain, matched against Bruce Willis in Die Hard. He was the ever-romantic and dreamy Colonel Brandon in the Ang Lee directed adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Kevin Smith’s Dogma featured him as the sassy Archangel Metatron. And, he was part of the hilarious, science-fiction film Galaxy Quest. Through these films, Alan Rickman found himself in the background of my life. Until in 2001, I realized that he would be portraying Severus Snape in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

I immediately persuaded my parents into taking me to Barnes and Noble to buy the Harry Potter books already released. There is a saying which I think describes my enthusiasm at that time perfectly: “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul.” Over the next decade of my life, I read every novel and watched all the corresponding films. I was part of the Harry Potter phenomenon; I was part of the Harry Potter generation. Still, through it all, I remained a quiet, devoted fan of Alan Rickman.

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“Yes, it is easy to see that nearly six years of magical education have not been wasted on you, Potter. Ghosts are transparent,” Severus Snape sneers down at the teen-hero’s idiocy in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This quote was very apropos for the time in my life. It was the summer after I had graduated from high school and just before I started my English B.A. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I went to see the film with my cousins while I vacationed in Eugene, Oregon. I made them have a Harry Potter marathon beforehand because I wanted to avoid having to answer incessant questions. And, I also just wanted to watch them all in sequence; it was one of my personal Harry Potter traditions.

They suffered through the films, but not without some witty and sassy remarks. Despite making fun of my near-obsession, my cousins still enjoyed themselves which secretly pleased me. I wanted someone else to see the magic of these books, and Alan Rickman of course. Through the storm of my childhood and teenage years, his films and projects had kept me distracted. There was an odd stability to the yearly work produced by Mr. Rickman. Additionally, I was still finding old gems in his repertoire that I had overlooked as a child.

I had covered Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot during my senior year in high school. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mr. Rickman had been in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Play directed by the late Anthony Minghella, a one-act, absurdist play about three characters stuck in their own individual urns. Each character compulsively retells a version of their truth in an almost hellish, masochistic exercise. I was intrigued. In my mind, this was the kind of work I wanted to explore as an undergraduate at UCSB. The curiosity and the passion were brewing inside me. All I needed was to formulate a plan.

It came at me quite suddenly half-way through my freshman year. The universe must have aligned itself in my favor. Alan Rickman was English. Samuel Beckett was Irish. Jane Austen was English. The birthplace of English Literature was clearly Great Britain. Therefore, I would study abroad in England. With no time to waste, I spent the second-half of my freshman year planning. I lived at the University of Sussex, located in an idyllic spot on the southern coast of England, for the duration of summer 2010. The countryside was amazing to explore, as was learning more on creative writing. However, upon my return to UCSB, I realized it had not been enough. I had not learned enough.

I needed – wanted - more time in England.

“I knew a lady very like your sister – the same impulsive sweetness of temper – who was forced into, as you put it, a better acquaintance with the world. The result was only ruination and despair. Do not desire it, Miss Dashwood.” These words spoken in the soft, crooning voice of Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility are unforgettable. It was equally unforgettable to watch his performance on a large projector screen as part of the Jane Austen course I was taking at King's College London when I lived there for the 2011 to 2012 academic year. There wasn’t a dry eye in the conference room; his delivery is masterful.

In addition to the Jane Austen course, I was also enrolled in Samuel Beckett Studies and Creative Writing in Drama. I was exactly where I wanted to be - learning what I wanted to learn. London was the metropolis of my dreams, and there was constantly something creative and artistic to explore. I made an adventure out of every film night on campus, theatre matinee attendance, and museum visit. My feet never stopped moving because I refused to spend any time on a bus or underground riding the tube. I wanted to see and smell London; I wanted to really live it.

It was during this time that I began to see the writing process differently. My mind is the cistern from which the words and the writing flow. The more I write, the more the cistern is emptied. The world – its beautiful chaos, art, and unpredictable nature - fills that cistern to the brim, so that I may continue to write. It’s a cycle of give and take. Anything internally creative is fed from an externally creative source. There is no end to this version of the writing process, and I love it.

The moments of independent enlightenment were further reinforced within the classroom at King's College London. One day, my creative writing instructor gave the students a great piece of advice. “Most importantly,” he said, “make a habit of carrying a notebook and a pen or pencil with you wherever you go.” He gave us a second to absorb this, and then continued. “Write whenever you have a spare moment. When the pages are full in your notebook, flip back through the pages and reflect on the writing. If it feels wrong to re-read your notes, put the notebook away somewhere safe, and return to it when you are ready and have the courage. Whatever you do, do not throw it away! In fact, keeping everything you write is useful, although it might not be your best work.”

I took his advice to heart. At first, I wrote between classes. While I ate my lunch outside the Natural History Museum, I would scribble notes about what was happening around me. I became a small detail in the life-story of hundreds of strangers. It all found its way into my notebooks. After a while, in the interest of making my life easier and my backpack lighter, I resorted to writing journal entries on my laptop. I have entries on my computer for every year since 2011, and since then I have found the courage to reflect on my own writing.

Over the years, the filter between what I think and write has dwindled consistently. The writing is raw, but always has potential. My voice has a style of its own, and I love it.

To think that my passion for writing and storytelling would not have grown if I hadn’t entered my grandmother’s home just in time to witness Alan Rickman screeching absurdities as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood gives me chills. It was this passion that drew me back into the academic world to pursue the English M.A.

I was at the precipice of making the decision to apply at California State University, Dominguez Hills when Alan Rickman passed away on January 14, 2016. That very day, amidst the surprising grief that overwhelmed me, I wrote my complete personal statement for the graduate program. I kept that piece of writing with me. It later turned into my literacy tale. And, after completing the M.A., it became part of my teaching philosophy.

You are reading it now.

Mr. Rickman once said in an interview that the road to happiness and success was following your passions and mastering those passions to the best of your ability. I am committed to always pursuing my passions and trusting, as I have always done, in these words by Alan Rickman: “There’s a voice inside you that tells you what you should do.”

All my best, D.

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