I found out on Friday. A post of some kind drew me to my high school’s Facebook page and I took the opportunity to scroll through the posts. There weren’t many as it’s not a particularly active group.
And then I read this: “A memorial to Mrs. Kelsey, beloved English teacher. RIP Mrs. Kelsey!!” attached to a 7-minute YouTube video showing a modest memorial at Kailua Beach with a few close family and friends sharing their memories of the woman they called Mom, Grandma and Friend.
I cried, of course. How could I not mourn the passing of this wonderful woman who I count as one of only three childhood teachers who changed my life?
I first met her when I was in 9th grade through my friend, Robin, who had the fortune of having her as her 9th grade English teacher. I had not been so fortunate. I had to wait until 10th grade to fully apprehend this teaching wonder. I chose her Creative Writing class and from then on, through the last days of my senior year, she was a constant in my life. She taught me to journal (and look where that has led), to love Shakespeare, and to trust my voice.
The memories have flooded in this weekend.
Walking to her portable classroom at the back of campus.
The poster in her classroom of a soldier carrying his wounded comrade with the caption “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” It was, after all, the Vietnam era.
Christmas decorations and goodies on a rainy Hawaiian day.
Music, music, and more music. And writing. Ah, blessed and cursed writing. The poetry of words.
The Planets. She loved to play all kinds of music for us to stir our creative juices, especially when we were journaling, but The Planets is the one that sticks out in my mind.
She knew I was interested in the dramatic arts, so she snagged me to participate in the Shakespeare Festival that was held every year at Chaminade College. I was Kate (from Taming of the Shrew) in 10th grade, our group presentation from from Julius Caesar won 2nd place in 1973, and in 1974 I won first place for my soliloquy from Titus Andronicus.
When we were juniors, the teachers went on strike. Except for Mrs. Kelsey. She kept her classroom open and a few of us straggled in for the 18 days that the schools remained closed. I had a single mom and we had nowhere else to go. “I came to teach,” Mrs. Kelsey told me, “Not to go on strike.” I’m sure she was an outcast for that, but it taught me an important lesson: be true to who you are even if it means everyone will hate you.
That same year, our drama teacher took a sabbatical, so we drama junkies were left with a shadow of a stand-in and only one play to work on (as compared to the three productions a year that happened when Mr. Bright was leading us). For many of us, Mrs. Kelsey’s classroom became our alternative gathering place.
We spent many, many lunch hours listening to music in her portable classroom with only the sunlight peeking through wooden louvers acting as our illumination. I think we wore out her copy of Jesus Christ Superstar.
I couldn’t get enough of her. In my junior year I was her teacher’s aide (5th period, if I recall correctly), and she graded me generously. Or was it a bribe? Regardless, she seemed to see something in me that I didn’t see in myself and for that I’m eternally grateful. I guess that’s the mark of an excellent teacher, isn’t it? The three teachers that I mentioned above all made me feel bigger, stronger, more capable than what the rest of the world seemed to be telling me.
And finally, that last year, my beloved Mrs. Kelsey and adored Mr. Bright joined forces to take the Shakespeare Festival by storm. A perfect ending to a perfect year.
Even after high school, Mrs. Kelsey and I kept in contact. Although she once asked me to call her “Janet,” I couldn’t do it. She considered me her friend, and I did the same for her, but she was and will always be, Mrs. Kelsey.When my daughter was born in 1983, she knitted her a pair of rainbow-colored booties and with them came a handwritten letter.
May 14, 1983
Welcome! Sorry my greeting is a bit tardy, but I didn’t want to meet you empty-handed.
Tell Mom that these can be washed in the washer, dried in the dryer, and never need the strings removed. Perhaps the rainbow will make you want to come back for a visit.
Here’s a hug for you & Mom (& Dad even if he doesn’t know me),
Carissa! How wonderful for you starting off the mother business with a dear little girl. Treasure every minute (- before you know it, she’ll be 30 – as my Anne will be in June). My congratulations to Dad!
Thespians are having a big 20th anniversary banquet. Wish you could be there.
Best love, JK
She sent this photo in December 1983.
She retired from teaching in the 90′s but that didn’t stop her. She went on to host a jazz music radio program at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s KTUH. Many a time she’d written me about this, but because of the time difference I was never able to tune in, even on the intertubes. How I would have loved to hear her voice again.
She slipped away, quietly, last September.