Do you have one?
Do you hear from them?
I do. Let me introduce you to mine, Mrs. Karen Lilly, she was my high school English teacher.
For me she was more than a teacher, she was a lifesaver, and life mentor. To this day, she reads my books and comments on my blog posts. Because of a classmate, we've reconnected after forty years. Enjoy our story.
Me, the Reluctant Student
September sun lit up half the room of the fourth period Mythology classroom. Skillfully I set myself in the middle back corner. It had been five years since I had attended an English or Lit class. Since sixth grade, I had specialized in teacher's assistant, TA, roles throughout every English department. This gift of no class attendance, but full credit on my report cards and transcripts came about because I tested abnormally high on the state standardized English test in fifth grade. My magnificent score released me from any further English and Lit classes from sixth grade through high school. What kid wouldn't agree to that option.
That life plan was smooth sailing until my mom interceded. While I was out of town at a swim meet, Mom volunteered at the student class registration day before my sophomore year. As luck would have it she worked at the English sign up table with Mrs. Lilly. They had such a good time together, that Mom signed me up for the fourth period Greek and Roman Mythology class.
From my intended invisible seat choice, I apprehensively watched the beautiful, tall, slender, and stylish woman before us teach a mixed bag of teenagers. Her bright eyes and easy smile held my attention. Mythology meant nothing to me. Taking notes was a lost skill. But listening to her talk captivated me the full fifty minutes.
Mrs. Karen Lilly, the Teacher
It's hard now to envision the olden day classrooms without technology. Yet, in 1979, we didn't have VCR's, DVD's, desk tops, nor lap tops, those were all things to come. We did have slide, overhead, and reel to reel movie projectors. For most classes, the teacher was the instructor and the entertainer. The chalk board and wall posters their main gadgets to hold our attention.
Where other teachers stood before us and read from texts, we had no interest in, Mrs. Lilly worked to bring the required reading to life for us. Every class was crowded with multiple reading options. Whether we were covering Mythology, British Lit, American Lit, even in dull subjects like Writing for College. She would introduce each book to us as if she were selling it. Every sales pitch had a visual component.
For Mythology class she had taken a trip, or knew someone who had, to Greece and Rome. As we arrived in class the heavy dark curtains were pulled, the lights turned out, and the slide show of ruins commenced. Suddenly, before our eyes stood the Parthenon, statues of Poseidon, or the Temple of Saturn, larger than we had ever imagined. I'd never seen anything like these. I had no hint of the stories and histories behind them. What I knew of ancient Rome came from Ben Hur. Without Google searches, or abundant worldwide travel, (half of the world was closed behind an Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall) I had a very limited breadth of the history of ancient Greece and Rome.
It took days to get through the slides because while the image was before us, Mrs. Lilly would verbally retell the tales of the heroes those edifices represented. By the end of the week our appetites were whetted enough to help us select our books and make our plans for the essays assigned to them. Since all the books were unillustrated, having the slide images really helped me to visualize as I read about Achilles and Briseis.
The required reading and listening came easily to me. My love of books had never languished. Trips to bookstores and libraries were still common occurence's in my busy teen life. Add a great raconteur at the head of the classroom, who was also vibrant and stunning, suddenly the power of unheard of books launched like rockets in me. The challenge came when I had to put pen to paper.
Teaching us the skill of writing was equally important to Mrs. Lilly. Sentence structure, transitional words and phrases, plot, and grammar underpinned every assignment. I had lost whatever phenomenal skills I may have had back on the standardized test day. The writing, rewriting, and editing of my work was often a torturous process. Neither my mom nor I kept track of how many late night cry sessions I went through to finish the work. Yet, no matter how poor some of my assignments were, Mrs. Lilly was a firm believer in compliments. Essays that were pen covered and margin noted to the hilt, received compliments, words of encouragement, and positive suggestions for moving forward. Or trying again.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Over the next three years, I would take every class she taught. My proficiency improved, thereby making assignments less fearful. Some assignments even became exciting. I won't divulge how often I tried to use Jane Eyre as my chosen book during those years. I will only admit that she let me use it twice. The second time I had to really sell her on it.
Her method of slide shows and reel to reel movies continued through the years. We visually traipsed through Massachusetts, stopping by Walden Pond, Concord, Boston, and Salem visiting the sages and writers from ages before during American Lit.
She brought Stratford- upon-Avon, Sherwood Forest, and Camelot to us, using the same method. She even got us out of our chairs by assigning us to perform scenes from Shakespeare and other great British writers. Every summer she took a group of students to Ashland, Oregon to experience a Shakespearean Festival. English and Lit were to be lived not just taught.
I never went on the Ashland experience, however, by my final semester in high school, I had completed all her courses and she accepted me as her TA. I'd come full circle, only this time I had gifts I could contribute. Papers I could read, listening to new book introductions she had, and spending time watching her.
I don't know if she ever knew how many of us watched her. Her stylish, statuesque stride across the main quad to the teachers' lounge always brightened the day. She was always friendly when you passed her. One day, as she passed, a fellow classmate said to me, "I don't think she wears the same thing twice. I've watched." In short, she taught us to be our best inside and out.
The days before graduation, she asked my opinion on the choice of stole she should wear for the ceremony. I couldn't believe she wanted my opinion. She also gave me a beautiful engraved pen set and encouraged me to keep writing, with the words, "You have a gift."
Time and distance separated Mrs. Lilly and I, as happens for many people we lost touch. Then the internet came along and miracles happened. I had daughters in high school now. I was the mom hunting good educations for them. Fortunately, we found one, in a high energy, petite, blond named Mrs. Bjur. Yet, every time my girls bragged about the amazing experiences they were having, such as memorizing and reciting Mark Antony's speech, I insisted on bragging about my English teacher Mrs. Lilly.
One sunny afternoon, as I sat at my antique desk by my front window, I opened my laptop and tossed Karen Lilly, Cupertino, Ca into the search bar. Old high school images popped up, but further down the page, was a reference to a Karen Lilly who painted gourds for artisan fairs. Low and behold, she had website. I took a chance and wrote a note, asking if the Karen Lilly I knew was the same one who was painting. It was. A classmate of mine, Christina, had developed a long-term friendship with my Mrs. Lilly. She helped her create her website and run her painting business. They were friends who had become like family. It would be their friendship and connection that brought Mrs. Karen Lilly back to my life.
A few months ago, I got to talk to her on the phone. Her beautiful voice hasn't changed. You can hear the smile in it. No one can judge if any of us have ever done as much as we could with the talents and gifts we have, I can't either, but I can say that the progress I have made wouldn't have come to fruition had I not had the best English teacher for me.
And to each of you, whoever your favorite teacher was, I wish and hope you can make a connection. Even if it's just a chance to say, "Thank you."
PS - The seeds Mrs. Lilly planted reach beyond me. In my family alone, vacations and family trips have been influenced by the images and stories Mrs. Lilly brought into my life. Below are a couple of photos from my daughter's trips to Rome and Boston.