Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Helene Forcier, 1946-2016

The only thing I knew was that she didn't look Jewish, but what did I know? Not much. She was blonde and stunning--not necessarily beautiful, but blessed with a presence that had to be acknowledged, even in a spacious room. She was that strong, that powerful.

The only places I'd ever lived were ethnic hamlets, a Dutch-American enclave, seasoned with a few German Catholics from up the road, and then a Swiss-American burg where cheese was king. If you lived in Wisconsin back then, you were never far from a dairy. Most of the kids in the rural high school where I'd taught lived on family farms tucked into the broad quilt of hills created by the Mississippi River. In my whole life, I don't think I'd ever met a Jew.

Helene was, New York city born and reared. I didn't know how to explain Oostburg to her, so I didn't try. What she knew, what she understood, I'm sure, was that I'd come from a small college--a Christian college--in the Midwest. What she must have recognized in a moment is that I wasn't Jewish and I wasn't born-and-bred NYC. 

One of Donald Trump's heralded children went after teachers when he spoke to the Republican Convention last week, teachers who conventionally lean in the opposite political direction. They're lazy, they're lives are too well-upholstered, they aren't a whole lot more than fat cat babysitters--you know the tune. At Greenway, I was surrounded by really good teachers, one of them Ms. Helene Forcier. 

And she was good. Hurts me to say that because I didn't always think so, but she was. In the mid-1970s, if you could control the masses, if you could create dedicated attention, you were good. Greenway High School was a brand new place on what was then the north end of Phoenix, Arizona, our district extending almost 40 miles north to Black Canyon City. Our kids were suburbanites and cowboys, most of them recent immigrants to the Valley of the Sun. In a high school of 2000 kids and their teachers, only a handful were native or Native. 

The campus was built for innovation, we were told, curtains for walls. The Open Classroom was all the rage, perfect for "team teaching." Happened also to be cheap. Think of it this way--a carpeted steel shed hung with a map of curtains that when pulled away turned the building into a roller rink. If all the freshman teachers wanted to show a film--voila!--instant theater. Sort of.

Helene and I were an unlikely duo--a small-town Dutch Calvinist from the rural Midwest and a flashy blonde Jew from New York City. But in America, you got to get along. For quite some time, we didn't.

Team teaching requires teamwork, something I wasn't good at. Team teaching requires planning, a job I really didn't care to give up. Teach teaching means sharing, a calling I found difficult because I looked at my students at mine, not hers, and not hers as mine either. She didn't. 

It must have taken a couple of months or so, but soon enough I began to resent my teammate because every morning when we'd show up at our broad open classroom, she'd ask me what I was doing. We were sharing a curriculum, but exactly how we went after what had to be taught required a plan I had and she simply copied--or so I thought. I'd tell her what I was going to do, and she'd smile and do the same. 

That got old fast. And when I got sick of it, I turned myself into an Arizona snowman. The only shoulder I gave her was cold. Things got dreary between us, and then worse. Soon we weren't talking. To say the least, we weren't team-teaching. We never came to blows; I simply turned to ice. Still today, when I remember, I can grit my teeth.

My own unshakable silence grew out of anger that rose inside me. In the immensity of that black stubbornness, the daily grind, with just a curtain between us but always between us, was miserable. I loved teaching, but hated her. I did. I'm not proud to say it.

Eventually, an administrator got us together and told us get over it. We were both great teachers, he said, "How come you act like kids?" He was right, and I knew it. That was the end. We never became best of friends, but for the rest of  year we worked together, team taught. 

A year later, forty years ago, I left Greenway for rural Iowa, and just this week I read Helene Forcier's obituary. That she died a teacher doesn't surprise me. She'd left Greenway for some other district high school, but ended up at Phoenix Washington, an inner-city school, where the obit said she'd done great things. 

"Helene changed many lives," the obit says. She created the Interact Club, a group that links high school kids and Arizona's retirement communities in service projects, over 100 a year. For all that work over-and-above the call of duty, she's won awards. Helene was a presence, a doer. 

I haven't seen her for forty years. haven't had occasion to talk to her. She's not among my Greenway Facebook friends; but she taught me things about myself I'm not proud of but happy to have learned. When I see her face and remember her presence, I can't help but wonder how she remembered me so many years ago. 

I wish it had been different. I would have liked to tell her I was sorry.

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