Lesa Knollenberg
freelance writer in
madison, wi

Mrs. Thein


Photo courtesy of Gus Knollenberg

I can’t find Mrs. Thein. I have Googled her repeatedly, but she has disappeared without a trace.

Mrs. Thein was my high school English teacher. She done taught me how to read and write real good, so I want to thank her good, too. I can’t exactly remember what I was like in high school, so I don’t know what she would recall about me. I remember myself as a quiet goody-goody, but recent comments from high school friends mention stuff I can’t remember, like bartending out of my parents’ cocktail cupboard and cutting Algebra in favor of a Whopper Junior with cheese.

So my memories of myself are probably faulty. But my memories of Mrs. Thein are quite clear. She was turtlenecks and corduroy skirts, both neutral and earthy. She was dark hair striped with gray, loafers and loud laughs. She taught me to love words. She taught me that I could say courageous things on the page that I couldn’t say out loud. She taught me that I could twist a phrase and earn her pleasant response. She set me on my path, and gave me a little nudge and a quick wave.

Now that I have children and they have teachers I see what a murky thing that quick wave is. Time and effort go into changing the course of a person’s life, and then the student is gone. Then it’s summer and time to start anew. So much time is devoted to curriculum and discipline in a classroom that I wonder if teachers know that the absorbers – the ones who absorb words and mannerisms and smells and book recommendations – are out there. And they remember.

Absorbers notice that teachers start on Mondays with lipstick, but by Friday even the eye shadow is gone. Absorbers remember how it smells in a classroom when the wind picks up after a rain. They can mimic a teacher’s crooked smile or how he makes his ‘e’s. If you are a teacher, and have an absorber, you can be sure that they’ll remember almost everything you say. Teachers set a course for absorbers. Absorbers will try the rest of their life to find and thank an influential teacher. As I write this, I’m becoming certain Mrs. Thein won’t remember me. How could she, after all the students she taught? I actually like the idea that she might have to look me up; how many other students, sitting quietly in class and soaking up her words, think of her so fondly? Many more than she’ll probably realize.

So Mrs. Thein, here’s what I’ve always wanted you to know: you were my link to a world that is my core. You introduced me to language, literature and opening up in a way that I still treasure today. You were books and integrity and a loamy side to life that still enriches me. Your enthusiasm for writing and words was magnetic. Even now, thirty years later, I can conjure up that room at WHS, the books we read, the light through the windows. So I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for opening the door to writing so enthusiastically that I walked through instantly. It centers me to this day. I am now a freelance writer, and when I’m not wasting time Googling people, I’ve built a nice little writing world for myself. As my sons, Absorber A and Absorber B, embark on their school careers, I can’t wait until they find their very own Mrs. Thein.