Tuesday, April 30, 2013

People Who Inspired Me

Today is Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

"When you are living the best version of yourself, you inspire others to live the best versions of themselves."  –Steve Maraboli, author of Life, the Truth, and Being Free.

I was just thinking about some of the people who have inspired me through the years for various reasons.  Not all of these people inspired me to do something in particular. Some of them were inspirations simply because of the way they lived their lives.  Some of them are famous, but others are not.  Some are still with us, while others have completed their journey here in the physical plane for the time being. Today I'm going to tell you about three of them who were not famous, but who meant a lot to me.

One of my earliest inspirations was a music teacher of mine named Evelyn Solberg.  We called her Mrs. Solberg, and I can't remember now whether she was really a widow or unmarried with a courtesy title.  She had probably started her teaching career in the 1930s.  A lot of places required female teachers to remain unmarried.  Back then, once you were married, you weren't supposed to have to earn money, anyway, and besides, you could suddenly get pregnant, and it would never do to allow students to see a baby bump.  Of course, nowadays it's different, and women can teach into their last stages of pregnancy.  How things have changed!

I don't think I really realized how much she had inspired me until I became a teacher, myself.   She taught music; I taught English as a Second Language.  Both of us were regarded as "specialist" teachers.  She didn't have her own classroom; she had to travel from classroom to classroom to teach.  I had to do that, too.  She made that look easy, but now I know it is not.  You have to be very organized when you go from room to room.  Whatever you need for the lesson has to be right there with you - you can't afford to forget anything.  You have to carry heavy things from room to room, too.

But the thing that inspired me the most – and once again, I only realized it many years later – was her reaction to having cancer.  Back then, in the early 1960s, cancer was a death sentence.  There were no such things as "cancer survivors," or if there were, I never heard about them.  Mrs. Solberg got weaker and weaker, and finally, in mid-year, it was time for her to say goodbye.  As a cancer survivor, myself, I know now how exhausted she must have been, and why she looked so tired, toward the end.

I have no idea how many students there were in that school, but I would estimate that there were probably 270 kids, tops.  The old stone building featured three floors with 3 to 5 classrooms on each floor, situated around a central hallway.  The nurse's office and principal's office were on mezzanine floors between 2nd and 3rd floors, and the small kitchen and dining area was in the basement, with the three first-grade classrooms.  2nd, 3rd and 4th-grade classrooms were on 2nd floor and the 5th and 6th-grade rooms were on the top floor.  There were, of course, no elevators in the building.  I can't imagine how she managed the stairs!

On her very last day, Mrs. Solberg stood in the middle of the 2nd-floor hallway and shook hands with each and every student on her last day. Even then, I wondered how she could stand there while all those kids walked by to say farewell.  I did stay home quite a bit after my cancer surgery, and during chemo, but I felt that I had to work as much as I could, so I remember how exhausted the simplest things made me feel.  When I got tired, I thought about Miss Solberg, and I decided that if she could do it, so could I.

When Miss Solberg died, she left a lot of her sheet music to my mom.  My folks went to the funeral, but Mom wouldn't let me come along, for whatever reason.  While the adults were busy having the funeral service, my friend, Gwen Larson, and I  sneaked into the vestibule of the church, where the casket was sitting.  We just wanted to say good-bye.

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Another person who inspired me, also a teacher, was my French and Spanish teacher, Connie House.  Mrs. House was a fabulous teacher, and very energetic.  When I became a teacher, I used some of her techniques in my own classroom.  What I liked about her was the way she seemed to understand her high school students and all the "stuff" they were going through.  Still, she had a strict side, and she didn't let kids talk her into giving them slack.  I remember her as being very protective of kids, and concerned about their well-being.  She seemed to be an advocate for us.   She always had a smile on her face.

The summer after my sophomore year of high school – that would have been 1969 – she took several of us to Quebec province, in Canada, to practice our French.  It was quite a trip!  We lived in Rock Rapids, Iowa, at the time, and we took a school bus from northwest Iowa all the way up to  Winnipeg, Canada.  I can't imagine doing that, now, since school buses don't have very good shocks, and you can feel each and every little bump in the road.  We were teens, at the time, so we didn't care, but I now have a little more sympathy for Mrs. House and her parent chaperons, because school buses are just not made for adult bodies.  

We didn't know where to eat our first night in Winnipeg, so the bus just took us to a drive-up place that looked promising.  It turned out that the proprietors were recent immigrants to Canada, from Greece, and their English was not very good.  (Remember that they speak English in most provinces; they only speak French in Quebec.)  We did try our our French on them, but that didn't work.  The menu was in Greek, so we ended up ordering by pointing to a picture.  We also wanted to swim in Winnipeg's Olympic-sized pool, and we did find it, but not before getting incredibly lost.  In Canada, there are three things they say to you when you ask for directions.  "Straight ahead, you can't miss it,'  "Three blocks," or "You can't get there from here."   We heard that last remark a number of times, and I'm sure Mrs. House was frustrated, but she never showed it.   Me, I would have developed nervous hives. 

We all got on a train in Winnipeg to travel east across Canada to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.   We spent one night on the train, in coach – very uncomfortable, especially for the adults!  In Toronto, we had hotel accommodations, thank God.  Naturally, the kids wanted to go shopping.  It must have been hell to herd all those teenagers through the stores.  Then it was on to Ottawa by train, where we stopped and toured the Parliament building and rode in horse-drawn carriages called caleches. The dictionary says claeche means the fold-down hood of a horse-drawn carriage, and these carriages did have fold-down tops.  My understanding was that the whole carriage was called a caleche, but who knows?  What teenagers understand and what adults understand are two different things, a lot of times.   Anyway, it was fun, and since I was one of the girls Mrs. House thought she could trust not to flirt too boldly with the handsome young man who drove our carriage, I was allowed to sit up next to the driver. 

Mrs. House was as strict as she could be with the girls, but it was hard, I know, to rein everybody in.  In the train, we all went to the dining car together and I remember eating shrimp cocktail for the very first time in my life.  We had fun chatting with the chefs in French.  One of the boys, to be funny, asked the chefs in English if the food was "on the house," and he replied in English with a strong French accent, "Non, zees eez on ze train!"   It was one thing to supervise the conversation with the chefs, but then some of us girls met some French-speaking soldiers in the Canadian army who wanted to chat with American girls who could speak French.  (I'm sure that seemed like a novelty to them, Americans who could speak anything besides English.)  I remember that Mrs. House said later she was concerned that the girls on the tour might get sidetracked talking to guys and then get separated from the group.  Logistically, I don't know how she did it.  She made it look easy, and fun.   But I know she had this idea that most young men had one thing in mind: sex. 

I remember that we rode the subway in Montreal, a first for me, and that we toured the site of "Expo 67" (1967 International and Universal Exposition), which was Canada's way of celebrating its centennial year.  The event was considered the most successful World's Fair in the 20th century, and we had read all about it.  Naturally, most of it was closed in 1969, but it was still exciting to see where it had been held.  For kids from Iowa, the subway ride, alone, was thrilling.

When we got back on the train for the short ride from Montreal to Quebec City one evening, there were a bunch of college boys, all quite drunk.  One of them hung around the entrance to the car we were sitting in, and I remember Mrs. House insisting that he move. She was sure that the young man wanted to rub up against the teen girls' bodies as they made their way into the crowded car.  We all found places to sit, and then tried to sleep, since it was late at night, but the college boys, all of them three sheets to the wind, were singing sexually explicit songs in French at the top of their lungs.  "First, we did it in the bed.  Then we did it on the floor.  Then we did it on the table," they sang.  I know Mrs. House wanted to run from girl to girl to cover our ears, but there was just no way she could do that.  She contented herself with the fact that some of the "flirty" girls in the group didn't understand French so well, so they probably didn't get the entire meaning of the song.  I remember her asking whether I understood the song.  The guys were so sloshed that their words were pretty slurred, but yeah, I got the gist of it. 

In Quebec City, we visited a Catholic private school and spoke with the students there.  We were given two common dorm rooms to sleep in – one for the boys and one for the girls.  I remember that the air quality was bad in Quebec City, and the Canadians told us that the dirty air would cause spontaneous runs in our pantyhose.  It was true.    On our last evening in Quebec City, we all got to see the movie that everybody was talking about, Romeo and Juliet, which had come out the year before.  This was quite risqué, as the film included a little nudity, which was shocking at the time.  There was some question about whether a certain scene had been cut from the American version and whether we would be able to see it in Canada, but I didn't notice anything different, and believe me, we paid very close attention to the bedroom scene.  I remember that Mrs. House found it hard to get enough taxis to take us back to our dorm, and about seven of us girls were packed into one cab.  We sang the Beatles' tune, "Michele" in the cab and chatted with the driver, who probably thought we were hilarious.  I do remember that Mrs. House haggled with the drivers, and made sure that they would go directly to our destination, without any side trips, and I remember that she discussed the fare in advance with the drivers.  There were actually too many of us in our cab to be legal, so some of us were hidden on the floor in the back seat.  What a ride!

Later on in life, when I was married and living in Japan, Mrs. House contacted me and asked if she could bring her granddaughter and stay in our home.  I had fun showing them around Japan, and I remember thinking that it was neat the way she had switched from language teaching to gifted and talented education.  She had also self-published a book of memoirs.  Life goes on, and it's good to see people moving on and doing following new interests in life.

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Loy Storey, with his son Jeff.
 A third person who inspired me was a fellow who owned the local grocery and dry-goods store in the little town of Jeffers, Minnesota.  My family moved there during the summer after I graduated from high school, so I never really felt that I lived there; I just visited from time to time.  The Storey family went to the same church as my folks did, and Loy Storey was a very active supporter of the local school and its activities.  My younger sister and brothers all told me how the kids loved Loy because he supported them at sports events, concerts, and everything else.  

Loy's wife, Lavonne, was a piano teacher, so it was particularly hard on her when she suffered progressive hearing loss, to the point that she was profoundly deaf.  I totally identified with Lavonne, because I am also partially deaf, and I have long thought that I would probably end up totally deaf in old age.  I watched  carefully to see how she and Loy handled it.

Loy was such a trooper.  When Lavonne could still hear, he had a light installed on their telephone, so she would know when it was ringing.  They loved to entertain, and I remember her putting on quite a spread (which is usually called "a little lunch" in Minnesota talk, no matter what time of day it is served) when my family visited them one evening.  We sat down at their formal dining table, which was covered by a formal, ivory lace tablecloth.  As we chatted, I noticed that Loy made every effort to include Lavonne in the conversation, and he made sure she understood the punchline of every joke.

Later, Loy took Lavonne to the University of Iowa, where they were testing newfangled hearing devices that could be implanted into the bone.  She had two channels, then four, then eight or sixteen.  The more "channels" she had installed, the more fine-tuned her hearing was, but I remember her saying that she still couldn't enjoy music the way she used to.

Through it all, Loy was sweet and attentive to his wife's every need, and I remember wishing to find a husband that would be as kind to me, in sickness as in health, as Loy was to his wife.

People like Mrs. Solberg, Mrs. House, and Loy Story are treasures in our lives, the gems that twinkle at us from a  pile of ordinary stones in the ground.   All of them were examples of  living the best version of themselves.  All of them were inspiring simply because of the way they chose to live their lives.  I am blessed to have known them. :-)

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