Sunday, July 24, 2016
Today I am grateful for Marianne Henckel, an inspirational teacher, who taught Business English at Sheboygan South High School when I was there back in 1968. And I just reconnected with her on my last visit to Sheboygan and told her so. Wow. What a moment for me. And I hope her. Go pee and/or grab a cup ‘o whatever because if you stick with this you will be here awhile. I thought of breaking it up into several blogs, but decided I wanted the story told from beginning to end, no matter what the length.
While I was visiting with a bunch of former (I won’t call them “old”) classmates on our recent trip, we got to talking about teachers. It wasn’t all good. But when we knew them we were bratty teenagers, with a cruelty level only that breed carries. Someone mentioned the one who snorted; one with big feet; one who’s fly never quite closed; and one. . .or several who we all saw heading for the bars, then and years later. . .with drinking problems. Now that I’ve raised kids and spent time in schools myself, I understand that bar thing a lot better.
One name that consistently came up, always in a positive way, was Marianne Henckel, a Business English teacher. I loved Mrs. Henckel. I did the math and she was 38 in 1968. I thought she was much older than that. All of my kids are older than that right now. Mrs. Henckel was a hoot. She had twinkling eyes, a quick sense of humor and a sassy attitude. And she still does. I’m so glad.
When one of my two boyfriends (gimme a break – it was high school) would hang out in the hallway chatting with me after the bell rang, she would insinuate her four-foot-nothing frame between us, shag him down the hallway, then spin around and usher me into the room by the elbow, with me protesting and her insisting I would learn something today.
And I did. Every day. I would beg her to sway from the grammar part of the curriculum and give us something more fun to do. She would argue vehemently, yet usually acquiesce. Or did I just think she did? One day she said, “Class!” Vertically, but not vocally challenged, she could get our attention very easily. “Today I want you to design a letterhead for a business. Be creative. It doesn’t matter what the business is, except that the design should reflect the business. Then I want you to write a business letter on this letterhead paper.” Oh boy. Finally something fun in school.
During that discussion with classmates about teachers, I mentioned how Mrs. Henckel used to get her hair done at Pranges Salon, where I had worked for 17 years. It was always good to see her, yet I never told her how important she had been in my teen years. Why? I don’t know. Someone said, “I think she still lives someplace in the county.” So when I got back to my computer I did a search. Sure enough.
I called the Assisted Living Facility where she was a resident and spoke with a lovely woman. “Sure,” she said, in the way only people in Sheboygan say “sure”. “She’s in independent living, though. I can’t transfer a call. She has her own number.” Oh boy. I knew that even this nice lady wouldn’t give me her number. She’d lose her job if she did.
“Could you please get a message to her?” I asked, getting the same extended “sure” back. “Please tell her that a former student of hers from 1968 is in town for only one more day and would like to see her if at all possible.” Thinking fast, I gave her my maiden name, Mary Jens.
“Jens?” she asked. “Jens? We have a couple here named Jens.” Until then I knew my aunt and uncle were in an assisted living facility, but had no clue where. That’s how I found them. Talk about kismet. And gratitude. “Sure, I’ll give Marianne your number and she can call you back.” Okay, I thought. Not great, but probably the best I can hope for. Will she call? Who knows?
But she did. Almost right away. She had appointments the following morning so she wasn’t sure if we could meet. She also didn’t remember me, which I expected, so I reminded her of the boyfriends. Then I took a chance and talked about that letterhead assignment, which I got a firm “A” on. I had learned at the salon years later that she had used my paper as an example of creativity and an excellent use of natural talent, when describing the lesson to future students. My paper. Mine?
She said she would call me the next day, when she returned from her appointment. We had lunch at our favorite hamburger joint, then headed to the assisted living facility to visit with my aunt and uncle. They lit up when we saw them in the dining hall and during the later chat, told us how the place was abuzz because we were visiting them and Marianne Henckel. Very cool. Can’t keep a secret in Sheboygan.
Except she hadn’t called. So, pain in the ass that I can be, I called her again. “Yes,” she said, her sweet voice instantly recognizable. “I just got home.” We made plans to go to her apartment in about a half an hour, when we had finished visiting the aunt and uncle.
A lovely, white haired lady, probably even a little shorter, opened her door. “Hi! Mrs. Henckel!” I was so excited I almost knocked her over. “This is my husband, John.” Introductions over she turned off the TV, showed us to a seat in her living room and let me babble. “You probably don’t remember me so I printed this picture of what I looked like in high school,” I said, jamming the too-small photo in her face, she peering at it and looking at me, trying to find a resemblance between they young, tight-skinned, perky girl and the older, wrinkly woman plopped on her couch.
With a somewhat bewildered look on her face she said, “When I was going to sleep late last night I got to thinking about an animal on the paper. A big animal with a compelling eye.” Yes! Yes! Yes! She remembered. I was overjoyed.
“It was the profile of an elephant and I used my eye makeup to draw the eye and shade in the elephant. The company was Mammoth Construction and the body of the letter was written inside the u-shaped curve of the elephants up-turned trunk. You told me you loved it and gave me an “A” and believe me I didn’t get very many “A’s”. And you used to come to Pranges Salon and told me how you would use my paper as an example. Do you remember that? I think you went to Lauren.” I think she remembered me during my babble.
“Yes, I did go to Lauren. For many years,” she said, still smiling sweet encouragement. I continued. “Well, Mrs. Henckel, I know it’s been a very long time, but I want you to know that I am now a writer and I have a blog I write on almost daily.” She smiled. I told her I had just been at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference and one several awards for my writing. She was impressed. I was overjoyed. Then I mentioned that I was thinking of writing a memoir and that until the conference I hadn’t realized that you could write several different memoirs. I always thought you had to start at the beginning of your life and then write until you end. She said, “But dear, that would be an autobiography then, wouldn’t it?” Ever the teacher. We giggled like girls. I told her of my dread of diagramming sentences and she said, “They don’t even do that anymore.” We giggled again, both grateful for that.
Then I shared how her name had come up as someone who influenced me with pure and honest encouragement. . .and humor, whenever I had done motivational speaking, in Asia, or the United States,. “No matter what I had planned to speak on, somewhere in the course of my talk your name would pop up.”
Of course, I bawled. I could tell she didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t know what to do with me, either, because until that moment I hadn’t realize how 100% true my words were. Whenever the voices of doubt plague me, I see her diminutive stature and big smile, telling me I am completely capable.
Himself took a few pictures and we made our exit after about a half an hour. “Tell me, Mrs. Henckel,” I said, walking to the door. By now she must have thought I was interviewing her for a magazine article, “Do you have any children?” This is always a topic people love to discuss and I was stalling. “No,” she answered. “We were never able to have children.” The pain of that was still slightly visible in her eyes and I wanted to cut my tongue out. “But you had hundreds of kids. And you still have me!” And I believe that is true for a lot of teachers. Hundreds. Thousands, whom they have influenced.
My hand was on the doorknob when she said, “I was born in 1930.” I teased her that she was going to make me do the math and her eyes twinkled and the giggle reappeared. “I’m a twin. My sister and I are very close to the same age.” She loved that one. So did I.
Thank you, Marianne Henckel, my favorite teacher from 48 years ago, for continuing to be an inspiration in my life. You are still the same. . .on the inside. . .where it counts. But I am. . .once again. . .forever changed.