This one is hard. How do I narrow it down? How do I define it? Do I pick a gift that meant something at the time or one that's grown in meaning over the years? What about presents that have become a fixture in my home? See? It's not so easy.
So I'm picking something I haven't looked at in years. It's a gift I got for no specific reason. It wasn't my birthday. It wasn't Christmas. It didn't come from a family member or a boyfriend. I have it now because of one man's vision for me.
It was spring of 1991. I had been cast as the Handler in a production of "Talking With" at my college, directed by one of the staff, Marvin Sims. For those who aren't familiar with the play, it's a production of eleven monologues, each coming from an entirely different female character. Marvin wanted to do the show to give the women in the department more opportunities, since most productions were so damn male-heavy. He double-cast about half the roles, just to give more actresses a chance to shine, but I was the sole performer of Handler. Handler was a southern snake handler, talking about how she came to work with snakes, what God meant to her, and more. It was the best part I'd ever had at school. I loved her to pieces.
One night after rehearsal - we worked with Marvin one on one in half hour chunks - Marvin was walking me out, since I was the last girl of the night. At the main bulletin board, we paused as we were chatting. Now, this was the main source of communication in the theater department. Auditions went up there, callbacks, cast lists, notices from the office, and anything the staff thought would be of interest to us. Marvin stopped what he was saying, frowned at the board, and said, "Wait. Something's missing."
I looked around, and sure enough, there was a hole amidst all the pinned papers. I couldn't remember what went there, though, and said so.
"Well, I do," Marvin said. He reached into his case and pulled out a manila envelope. "Here."
My name was written on the front, so I opened it. Inside was a photocopy of a news article that had been pinned to the board, right in the hole he'd just pointed out. It was an interview of Kathy Bates done in the New York Times, with the headline, "I Was Never an Ingenue." I'd seen it up there and read it over a dozen times.
"What's this for?" I asked.
"I put that up so everyone would see it," he said. "I took it down so you could take it home and believe it." He went on to talk about the struggle Bates had gone through in her career to that point, how she'd persevered and was finally seeing the fruits of her hard work. "When you start doubting yourself, read it. Then read it again. Because there is no reason you can't have that success, too. I believe in you."
He gave me a quick hug and left. I still have that dog-eared stapled photocopy in my scrapbook. Because Marvin was the first acting teacher/director I ever had that ever vocalized such faith in me. Because that show turned my entire theater life at college around.
And though I haven't actually read the article in years, whenever my personal doubts get really bad, I work to pull myself out of it by thinking about Marvin and that night. I might not be the actress I always dreamed about, but that doesn't mean I don't have worth.
Marvin helped give that to me. I call that a pretty damn good gift.