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Remarkable Teacher

A photo of Suits star Patrick J. Adams sitting on a ledge with hands folded.

School Ties

Suits star Patrick J. Adams honours the high school drama teacher who counselled him toward a successful career in acting.

De Richard Ouzounian
Photo : © NBC Universal, Inc., Robert Ascroft/USA Network

The room erupts into applause as Patrick J. Adams approaches the podium to accept an Honorary Life Membership to the University College Dublin Law Society. The prestigious club had previously bestowed this tribute on the likes of Noam Chomsky and Bill Clinton, and was now honouring the 32-year-old Torontonian, or as the society’s auditor introduces him, “The man who made lawyers sexy again.”

While it’s obvious that the crowd agrees with the description, the truth is Adams isn’t a lawyer. Far from it. He just plays one on TV.

The character that Adams portrays on the hit series Suits is Mike Ross — a drug-dealing, LSAT-cheating college dropout. After stumbling into a job interview he’s not qualified for, Ross’s photographic memory helps land him the position of high-powered lawyer Harvey Specter’s right-hand man.

The show feeds off of Ross and Specter’s relationship; they play to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. While Ross is street-smart, Specter is book-savvy, but together they’re unbeatable.

“We play a lot of that relationship up for comedic purposes but there’s a serious message at the core,” says Adams. “Never underestimate the power of a mentor. You have to find someone who can inspire and encourage you.”

He’s been lucky. Not only is Adams acting out the perfect mentor/pupil dynamic but he also had the chance to experience the real deal early on in life — someone who provided him with the necessary tools to carve out the kind of successful career he has today.

Deborah Barton-Moore was that person. She taught drama at Northern SS for 20 years, was department head for much of that time and worked directly with Adams from Grades 10 to 13.

Adams knew from an early age that he wanted to be an actor and made the life-changing decision to commit as he entered high school. “My family was moving back to the Beaches and everyone assumed that I’d go to school there; but I’d heard about the courses at Northern Secondary so I decided to check them out.”

The wannabe thespian was impressed with the school’s performance space and the real works of dramatic literature they put on. Adams was sold. “Even though it meant that I would have to commute an hour and a half every day, I knew it was where I had to be.”

"Debbie took an interest in her students and treated everyone like they had something to offer."

Although he didn’t get to work with Barton-Moore immediately, his presence did not go unnoticed. The now-retired teacher remembers her first glimpse of Adams’s acting skills in the school play Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss’s complex piece about the French Revolution. “Patrick played Marat and he just had to sit in a bathtub making political speeches, but I recall how riveting he was.”

When he wasn’t sitting in suds, Adams could see the influence Barton-Moore had in her classroom. “Debbie took an interest in each of her students and what they could teach her,” he explains. “She had a real enthusiasm and a genuine curiosity, she would treat everyone like they had something to offer.”

When Barton-Moore and Adams finally joined forces, neither was disappointed. “I found that there were very few secondary school teachers who would talk to students like regular human beings,” Adams recalls, “but she was actually one of the first people in my life to say, ‘You can do this. You can really do this.’ Right off the bat, she was supportive and more importantly, she believed in me as an actor.”

As they began working together, Adams noticed something about his teacher’s approach. “Debbie would grade people on the product but paid close attention to the process.” Barton-Moore confirms that. “There’s a lot of students who can achieve a certain level of success and they stop there. That never interested me. I was more concerned with how hard a student worked on their projects and what they learned from them.”

During Adams’s final year of high school, he reached new levels of responsibility when Barton-Moore suggested that they co-direct the senior show, Cyrano de Bergerac.

“Looking back, I can’t believe Debbie agreed to share that responsibility. She let me do my part. It wasn’t one of those instances where the student hangs around being useless,” explains Adams.

“A lot of people think that when a teacher co-directs with a student that it’ll be a scary journey. But, with Patrick, it wasn’t,” says Barton-Moore. “He had the ability to see the contradictions in the characters and bring them to life onstage.”

A photo of Deborah Barton-Moore and Patrick J. Adams.
Deborah Barton-Moore and Patrick J. Adams co-directing the senior production of Cyrano de Bergerac at Northern SS.

Of course, teacher and student had their differences. For instance when Adams decided that his future would be better served by studying in the United States, he approached Barton-Moore. “I asked Debbie if she would help with my monologues for the auditions and, of course, she agreed. But then, I would keep putting it off and finding reasons not to do it. When we finally met, Debbie walked into the auditorium and was brisk,” explains Adams. “She said, ‘I don’t think you’re taking this seriously. There’s a huge opportunity here, you’ve had weeks to prepare, I’ve made myself available and you keep turning my help down. You have to get serious about this.’”

The young actor was taken aback. “That was my first real experience with self-sabotage — setting yourself up to fail at something because of a fear to succeed. What made Debbie so special is that she was the first person to call me out on it.”

Adams followed her advice, got into the University of Southern California, received a BFA in acting, graduated with distinction, and his career was well on its way. He took the opportunity to express his thanks when he invited his mentor to the set of Suits last year. “I had never been on a TV shoot in my life,” says Barton-Moore, “it was a magical world to me.”

Looking back, the former teacher refuses to say that she knew Adams had star quality. “I’ve learned not to think too much about that kind of stuff,” she says. “So many of my students have the potential, but you never know who is going to go the distance.”

But Barton-Moore will admit that Adams had one special skill set that put him out in front of the competition: “Patrick was able to articulate his feelings so beautifully. He had an introspective streak of self-examination, and of the art form, that gave him an advantage.”

Adams still grows emotional when he thinks of his time with Barton-Moore. “Young people are at such a delicate stage in high school. They’re making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. You need to find somebody you can be yourself with. What Debbie did for me was so far beyond just teaching me theatre.”

The two have kept in touch over the years, but not as much as Adams would like. “Our closeness survives time and space,” says the actor, “and every time I’m around Debbie, I feel like I still have so much to learn from her.”

In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.