Her name is Helen.
She’s a retired teacher who spent most of her professional years in Minnesota and Indiana. For the past six years, she’s made Kentucky her home. She says she doesn’t want to be anyplace else. “My family has been so kind to me,” she says as she welcomes me to sit in a nearby chair.
I had come to honor her as a symbol for all the teachers I’ve valued along the many twists and turns of learning from first grade to graduate school, a foundation for the building of a whole life.
Helen and I spent a pleasant summer afternoon together, talking about how it was in the beginning, then the excitement along the way from St. Cloud to New York City and back again to the Midwest.
“We were middle-class people,” Helen Pohl softly says, with satisfaction coming from knowing who she is, where she is, and how she wants to be remembered—like her mother before her, a teacher is what the daughter always wanted to be. Education was a natural passion and responsibility, and Helen discovered as much as her students, understanding the roles of patience and persistence, the importance of seeing and feeling education as a shared experience. “If you want to live a long life, love, then teach,” she beams, as if teaching can be as natural as breathing.
Helen Pohl was born in Melrose, Minnesota—population 2,561—just down the road from Sauk Centre, boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis. He wrote Main Street, satirizing middle-class America, focusing on foibles, his interpretation distorting as much as it illuminated. He passed away when he was 66. And there would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul, giving to America another perception of materialistic excess in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was only 44 years old when he died.
Kentucky, like Minnesota, has produced its share of influential writers—Wendell Berry and Robert Penn Warren—but both states have also been home to many dedicated teachers, who’ve mainly lived quiet, unassuming lives, hardly ever becoming celebrities.
September, the beginning of another school year, is an appropriate time to remember these stalwart individuals, historically underpaid and unappreciated. Teachers are as taken for granted as the sunrises and the tying of shoestrings.
Helen Pohl is descended from long-suffering Irish who survived the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1849. One of Helen’s grandfathers was a stonemason, the other a farmer, pilgrims from Ireland to the Promised Land of America. Perhaps it was the legacy of William Butler Yeats, founder of the Irish National Theater Company, that breathed across the decades and was one of Helen Pohl’s major inspirations.
She graduated from the University of Minnesota and began teaching English and drama in St. Cloud, joined the Cathedral Players, and later was encouraged to earn her master’s degree from Columbia in New York City. “It was a wonderful year,” says Helen, her slender hands in her lap, fingers warming to the telling of those years of her life when “having a good time” was as important as entrances and exits on the stage on Broadway or the little theater in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
She married, had two sons, and eventually returned to teaching in Michigan City, Indiana. “Young people should be taught to love literature…Shakespeare was one of my favorites…I loved Macbeth. ‘Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble,’” Helen’s resonating voice filling the room with a sound born of Irish despair becoming hope.
To remember Shakespeare, Yeats, Lewis, Fitzgerald, Berry, and Warren, and never to have known Helen Pohl is an untimely omission. I’m grateful for having the good fortune to have sat down beside her—and listened.
She’s 102 years old.