Monday, December 31, 2012

Wilma Helgeland, 1921 - 2012

"One never knows for sure, does one?"

At the 50th Reunion of the Class of '62 with Serena Sheilds,
Chuck Hendrickson, and Lee Leidal
She was famous for that line, her standard answer each and every time someone came to her class and asked whether there would be a quiz on that day.  Grammatically correct, the phrase just lifted out of her mouth and into the air.  There may or may not have been a quiz planned, but she would never give indication, just like she never got rattled about anything.

I don't recall ever seeing her get angry or upset in any way.  Each day when I walked into the classroom I expected to see the same wry smile and feel a congenial welcome to her class.  She  treated everyone the same, and the class was always under her control because students respected her, and learned from her.

I learned from her that some phrases were grammatically correct not because they "sounded right" but because there were rules that were to be followed.  We diagrammed sentences, like it or not, and learned such annoying things as case, gender, number agreement, and other basics.  She taught us about funny phrases like split infinitives, improper antecedents, dangling participles, parallel agreement, and the misuse of a preposition to end a sentence.

We learned when to use like or as, well or good, and many of those lessons are still in my head.  Maybe she didn't teach us everything I've mentioned here, but she laid a groundwork that stayed with me over the years when I was studying and teaching English, later when I was writing papers here and there, and finally with this blog.  One never knows how long those lessons might stay with a person, does one?

For all her technical expertise most of us will remember her most of all for her compassion and humanity.

Perhaps because she was at heart a friend as much as our teacher her life impacted us all greatly.  In the last couple of months since my Dad has been in the nursing home I've had occasion to drop in to see her, though not as often as I'd like or should have.  One day in October I came to see Dad and we wheeled into the guest lunchroom (for lack of a better name) and found she was there with Chuck and Ann, who were spending the week.

They invited us to join them at their table, and we did. Dad was not too far along recovering from an accident and was still pretty well dosed up with morphine so I don't know that he was fully capable of being a part of the conversation.  Yet Wilma went out of her way to pull him in from time to time with a "Remember that, Curtis?"  or similar questions that saw to it that he would be included.

She was like that.  She noticed others and spoke to their needs, and Lord knows we eighth-graders had much that needed handling.  It's an age when we might begin rebelling, among other ways by wearing long hair, or a ducktail in those days.  I discovered butch wax applied to my hair allowed it to be slicked back on the side, much to my liking.  In her own gentle way she reminded me there is more to my head than what I can see in a mirror by telling me it looked sharp, but take care of it back here as well - where she touched my hair with her fingers in the back of my head.  She cared.

As we prepared for high school some of us were asked to write a short piece about what we saw ahead.  Once I had finished mine and turned it in she very delicately walked me through some things that maybe should remain  unsaid, each time by asking, "Are you sure you want to say this?  Maybe we could take it out."  Because she asked it the way she did, I was indeed sure that I did not want to say that.  And my piece was certainly improved.

This woman may have been the only teacher who brought up race in my twelve years of school in Northwood, at least in a thoughtful manner.  She once shared an experience while teaching in Manly.  One of her students, a pretty girl she said, was black, although I'm sure she referred to her in the language of the time as colored.  For Wilma I can't imagine that it made any difference what color she was, until the day she happened to see the girl in the bathroom with soap suds all over her face.  "Wouldn't I be pretty if I were white," the girl had asked?

There wasn't much else that needed to be said about the incident, since just by the way she told the story Wilma had already spoken to the issue of race and belonging in our society, the difficulty of being "different", and the sadness of it all.

She had a way of doing that, of saying the right thing.  She understood us all, a paradox of sorts when viewed against her favorite saying, because she was the one who did know for sure, wasn't she?

Most people have a teacher somewhere who influenced their lives.  She was one of them.  We were blessed to know her.

1 comment:

  1. Yes Mrs. Helgeland was a agreat teacher. I don't think today's generation is taught correct grammar the way we were. I notice all the time words used incorrectly. I'm guilty of it myself. I wish I could remember things as clearly as you do, Lee. I don't have that gift. I was amazed that she still remembered me at our last class reunion. RIP Mrs. Helgeland.


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