I’m honored to introduce you today to Karen. Karen and I met through a writers’ group where, once a week, we write for half an hour, then swallow our pride and read out loud whatever we’ve just scratched out onto the paper to the three people sitting nearest us. It takes courage, and Karen has been very encouraging to me in my work. She also introduced me to a large brand of artist’s sketchbook…for writing. We both share an affinity for long stretches of blank, unlined paper onto which we can crowd our stories.
In this piece, Karen looks into her early years of schooling at a woman who made a huge difference to her. It’s amazing the impact that adults can have on the lives of children, effects that reach even beyond the life of that adult. Perhaps it’s because, to quote from the dedication of The Little Prince “All grown-ups were once children– although few of them remember it.” I think Mrs. Nowlin remembered being a child, and this gave her the power to change Karen’s life.
by Karen Phelps Heines
“Karen, please read next.”
My heart stopped. My face turned red. I flipped back several pages in my second grade reader as I tried to pull the last words read aloud from my subconscious. I failed.
The whole class looked at me.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t keep up. The story interested me and I lacked the patience to go at the pace of the student reading aloud. Most of the time I kept track of the reader’s place as I read ahead. But this story was good. I became engrossed in it. I forgot about the classroom.
My teacher, Mrs. Nowlin, told me where to start reading. My shyness and embarrassment made it doubly hard to read in front of the class.
Mrs. Nowlin was a stout woman who wore simple cotton dresses and sensible shoes. By the time I met her, her hair was gray. You would not notice her on the street. She taught second grade in one of two elementary schools in Sulphur, Oklahoma in the 1950s.
Sulphur was and still is an agricultural community with the largest national park in Oklahoma bordering the city on the south. The closest town lay nine miles west and it was much smaller than Sulphur. Sulphur lacked the population to develop a magnet school or TAG (talented and gifted) classes, not that they existed in the 1950s.
Mrs. Nowlin taught all the second grade subjects to her twenty-five students. Fortunately, four other girls read ahead and finished their arithmetic homework before she finished teaching the lesson. The third week of class she pulled five of us to the front of the classroom. No boys, just girls. We put our desks in a small semicircle and worked there for the rest of school year.
Mrs. Nowlin taught two second grade classes that year. She didn’t get extra pay. She got no recognition for her efforts. She did it because she was a dedicated teacher who wanted all her students to learn as much as they were capable of during the time they spent in her classroom.
Today I sometimes hear about a teacher who goes above and beyond for his or her students. These teachers are few and far between. I only had one teacher like that in my twelve years in elementary, junior high and high school. I was lucky.
From Mrs. Nowlin, I learned to set my goals higher if the ones set for me weren’t challenging. This dedicated teacher taught me far more than second grade lessons.
Mrs. Nowlin, you are now beyond my reach. I wish I had thanked you for how you helped me grow. I wish I’d realized what a gift you gave me before I became an adult. You helped shape me. You changed me for the better.
Karen retired from a marketing career with IBM and has been working for the last five years to free her right brain. She writes at Louisa’s Café and Bakery in Seattle and hopes to finish her first suspense and young adult novel soon. Karen lives in Edmonds with her two dogs, Teddy Bear and Emma Bear.