WOI: An Ode to Frau

When I first started high school, a mysterious figure arrived at the front doors of Flinthills High.

She wore her dark hair in a boyish pixie cut, which struck us as odd since the only women we knew with hair that short were our moms. Her skin was pale, as though she was too busy reading novels to spend time outdoors. Her slim, athletic figure was often masked by chunky knit sweaters and loose-fitting polos that sometimes rose just high enough to tease us with the edge of a tattoo (we thought?); and her semi-angular face, framed with expressive and prominent brows, rarely displayed more than the slightest hint of artificial color.

Her effortless manner of existence was unlike any we’d seen before. She was so damn comfortable in her own ordinary skin, that she became anything but ordinary. Her very being suggested both careful consideration of her place in the world, and a quiet but firm refusal to adhere to societal expectations.

We came to know her as Frau.

Frau was our ninth and eleventh grade English teacher — and she was exotic, right down to her obviously-European sneakers. She spoke German fluently, we discovered, due to a year-ish stint in Karlsruhe — or was it Düsseldorf? (This life abroad, we came to understand, did not entail evangelizing or studying at a university or teaching young children to speak English; I seem to recall her admitting she spent much of her time washing dishes. I forget the specifics, now, but the puzzlement remains.) We were exhilarated by every mysterious layer of her being.

She kept miniature squares of Ritter Sport Schokolade tucked away in odd desk drawers: coveted rewards for particularly skillful writing or unusual participation in classroom discussions. She instigated heated debate sessions, forcing us to take a stance just so she could flip the tables and require us to defend the opposing point of view; all the while enabling us to understand the complexities of not-so-black-and-white issues, unbeknownst to us fumbling teenage idiots. She welcomed original student works, and suffered through many samples of my angsty teen poetry: some, she submitted to contests or anthologies; most, she returned, riddled with suggestions, scribbly stars, and questions.

One February afternoon when the grass lay buried and brown beneath mushy gray-sky snow, Frau read a poem to us: “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I have never forgotten how innocently the poem floated up from the silky pages of those Holt Literature books, right up to the last two lines: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / went home and put a bullet through his head.”

After a brief moment of silence following the sound of the last period, my peers issued immediate exclamations: That was STUPID! Why’d he do it?! I hate this poem. But I was enamored. How remarkably odd, indeed, that Robinson could so nonchalantly introduce the man’s abrupt suicide. My heart ached with startling pity: Robinson’s words had touched me, at the very core of my being. I don’t remember a time before this in which an author’s work had such a moving effect on me.

While many of my peers likely forgot the poem and the record player upon which Frau shared the musical version by Simon & Garfunkel, I still think of this poem often, ten years later. I remain haunted by Richard Cory.

Frau set the wheels in motion: my literary awakening.

* * *

She’s a bit romanticized in my memory, I’ll admit. It’s quite possible that some of the details of this recollection are a bit skewed. But I suppose that is normal: those rose-colored glasses are some sort of due process for a person with whom one has formed such an intimate but distant personal relationship.

Frau claims ownership (or perhaps, contributing-editorship,) to a fair chunk of what I claim as my actual self. She planted a seed of hope in the palm of my teenage soul that has never stopped growing. Certainly, sometimes that seedling has shriveled a bit or needed some coaxing to emerge from a particularly crusty layer of neglect and doubt; but the seed remains. She showed me how to nourish that seedling with exceptional prose and tidbits of poetry.

She also cultivated my appreciation for literature and writing into something much greater, something much more fulfilling. Because Frau walked through the doors of USD 492 some twelve years ago, I learned how to accept criticism of my writing, though sometimes frustrating or nettling. And through her steady stream of feedback and encouragement, a foundation was built for a lifelong need to write.

In the meantime, she hurled book recommendations at me like literary bullets. I grew whole in the fibers of those pages, filled with competing desires to read my life rich and to please this woman I had grown to love in the manner of student admiration. Few things became more satisfying than the affirmation Frau bestowed upon me when I completed another noteworthy novel. My appreciation for this beloved teacher grew into something a bit like friendship, and a bit like worship.

* * *

I’m a teacher of high school English, now, and more often than not I have a little cry at my desk at the end of the day, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. My students can be belligerent and cruel, my colleagues are often sharp-tongued and more critical than helpful, and society as a whole seems to have few kind things to say about educators. On those days, I usually end up calling my mom, who sits patiently on the other end of the line as I weep loudly and feel pretty sorry for myself. I wonder aloud why I even bother, what is even the point of being a teacher.

When the gasping cries subside a bit, she always asks, “Are you done?” and I nod, as though she can see my head bob through the phone. “Good. Do you remember Frau Krehbiel?” she starts.

And that’s really all she has to say.

I’m taking it personally.

In first grade, a kid from Cassoday (accidentally) tripped me as I hustled (perhaps more quickly than I needed to) from my desk to the trash can, empty chocolate milk carton in hand.

I was clad in a white, fringed and embellished Western-style shirt — my favorite — because it was picture day. I was excited, for three quite understandable reasons: 1) we’d just finished snack time; 2) it was nearly 3:30; and 3) I’d smiled my biggest grin ever — showcasing my complete and utter lack of front teeth. I knew Mom and Dad would be super-mega-ultra proud of that grin, so naturally, I was in a hurry.

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My face connected with the desk like a magnet had drawn the object and I together, and in moments, blood was gushing down my chipmunk cheeks and onto that remarkably white V-neck. Naturally, my first reaction was: Holy shit! That’s a lot of blood! (sans the expletive; I was only seven, guys) and then — I caught sight of  Cassoday-kid.

You know those movie clips in which a major character narrows his/her eyes and looks at another character/object/animal and the camera zooms in on that dirty look, so nobody misses it? Yeah. That happened.

It suddenly became clear to me, as I glowered (and hyperventilated/cried upon a stool in the boys’ bathroom, which was [mortifyingly] closest for my bleeding-like-a-stuck-pig self): Cassoday-kid had tripped me on purpose, duh. Any fool in his right mind could have seen I was in a hurry to get to the trash can. His foot was obviously intentionally placed in my direct path.

That all went down about 20 years ago, and I’m still half-certain I was tripped purposely. Of course, being the reasonable adult that I clearly am, I’ll pretend to lean more toward certainty that it was all an accident, caused primarily by my own haphazard hurrying; but deep down…that’s another story, folks. I took it personally. I used my woman-brain to twist this relatively innocent experience into a grudge-worthy personal attack.

In fact, over the past two decades, I’ve taken personal offense to comments, sideways glances, Tweets, jokes made by siblings, memes, blog posts, gum on my shoe . . . You name it, I’ve taken personal offense to it, as if the person saying/doing any given thing said/did the thing as a direct criticism of myself. Do I realize this is a completely irrational line of thinking? Absolutely. Is it something I continue to do? Most def.

As a third year teacher, I struggle most with this particular aspect of myself, which doesn’t lend itself well to my career. I work with a horde of angst-y teenagers who — more often than not — blame anyone other than themselves for shortcomings. The ability to connect actions (or lack thereof) to consequences is not something they’ve mastered quite yet. Examples:

  • It’s my fault my students did poorly on a test, despite the fact that they didn’t complete the reading, or failed to do their practice homework, or talked over me during class, or refused to participate in class discussions.
  • I’m mean because I sent students out to the hallway — because they didn’t complete the chapter we would be discussing in class.
  • I’m unfair because I gave students homework over a holiday break — because they didn’t finish any of their reading homework assignments, so we had to read over break in order to finish the book before the end of the semester.

Get the picture?

Deep down, I know that my students enjoy me; at least, most of them do. But at the surface level? I’m an insecure 26-year-old, floundering about the halls of a high school in memories of my own horrific high school experience, berating myself for every little detail my students find to criticize me about. I sometimes want to shout, “Hey! I hear you! I’m taking it personally!”

I’m aware that students’ brains are still developing. I know that their hormones are raging, and their emotions . . . terrifying. I know that they’re trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, the careers they want to obtain, the next color they’ll dye their hair, why their parents don’t come to school events, where their next meals will come from, why their best friends are no longer talking to them, how math and letters can possibly exist in the same world . . . and yet . . .

I’ve got feelings, too.

Homecoming, 5.0

I’m going to walk out on a metaphorical limb and make the assumption that any individual who has returned to the strange, wicked world of high school as a teacher has experienced feelings of deja vu and vertigo, of sorts. At times, I find myself in extreme flashback situations–moments that I cannot stop or control no matter how much I’d like to do so.

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Exhibit A: Homecoming week. This past week at school was a smorgasbord of quirky dress-up days, haywire attention spans, king and queen kiss speculations (because homecoming royalty has to kiss, duh), awkward tittering about who has just asked whom to the dance, and as a cherry on top: class and organization float decorating on Friday. As a class sponsor, I had the opportunity to supervise my group of rambunctious teens as they bickered their way through the decoration process. (Cue the personal high school flashback, now.)

Float decoration was a direct reflection of my own high school experiences with homecoming and other events that required class cooperation or participation: some kids worked diligently; some kids napped in corners; some kids disappeared to God knows where; and some kids sat around brooding, irritated that their plan wouldn’t be utilized. The end result of these experiences is always the same: When the project is finished, the collective unit gathers round to scrutinize, and those who have contributed nil start the barrage of negative criticism.

“This sucks. It looks terrible.”

“That line is crooked.”

“Who drew this? It’s awful!”

And so on, and so forth. Meanwhile, the handful of individuals who did contribute to the item in question begin to feel indignant, and backlash ensues. Typically, the terms lazyworthless, and jerk can be distinguished from the hasty emotional rebuttals of those injured few.

As a high school student, I was always part of the offended group; I worked tirelessly to ensure our class would “win” whatever competition my school had in place, and quickly became frustrated with classmates who only had negative comments to make. As a teacher, I now possess the “power” to shape this experience into a learning opportunity.

Here’s the lesson, kids: Life is like a homecoming float. You can either dive in headfirst, armed with glue and glitter and visions of Miley Cyrus on her wrecking ball; or you can sit on your haunches, suspicious or apathetic with no intentions other than being that wrecking ball, ready to take someone out with your negative words and “cool” attitude. The choice is entirely up to you.

However, be aware: The “you” that you choose to be in high school is not all that different from the “you” that you will be as an adult. Choose wisely, young grasshoppers. Choose wisely.