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Helen in her Ames, Iowa, garden, circa 2011. Helen on her family's farm southwest of Rolfe, circa 1952. This essay may be expanded and additional photos may be added at a later date.

Anticipating an All-Class School Reunion
by Helen Gunderson
RHS class of 1963
Ames, Iowa 
contact information
July 10, 2013
(latest revision, July 28, 2013)
In addition to Rolfe memories, Helen writes about teaching at Ordean Junior High in Duluth from 1967 to 1971. Many of her students went to East High School, and its class of 1973 celebrated a 40-year reunion on July 19 and 20, 2013. Click here to go to the beginning of Helen's Duluth memories.

Rolfe is celebrating its sesquicentennial this coming weekend. There is also the high school’s all-class reunion on Saturday. And as a graduate of the class of 1963, this should be the closest thing my classmates and I will have to a 50th anniversary reunion.

My class has not had many reunions. We did meet after five years at the golf course. The club house was more loosely managed at that time and had unlocked coolers of beer. But our organizers were told that no one should get into the beer. Well, boys will be boys. Our organizers were livid. We may have had one other reunion for just our class, then were invited to at least one reunion with the class of 1962. But otherwise, we simply have not been a connecting class like others that come to mind–1928, 1955, and 1960. This year, the older half of the classes will gather at the Community Center on Main Street, while the younger half will be at the golf course.

The class of 1963 had originally been assigned to be with the older half, but as more reservations were made, and the Community Center would have been too crowded, the class of 1963 has been routed to the golf course. Instead of my gathering with some favorite friends from older classes and my sister Clara (1960) and brother Charles (1962), I will be with younger folks, including sisters Martha (1966), Peggy (1969), and Louise (1973). I hope those younger folks know how to keep the volume of music low enough so us old timers can hear each other well enough to have good conversations.

I have mixed feelings but will go. Even though I have grown beyond the town and rural culture of that county, they are part of who I am. I hope there are some serendipitous moments but am afraid there will also be elements of regression. We six Gunderson siblings have not been in the same town since Dad died in Ames on July 1, 2010, in Ames and his memorial service was in Rolfe on July 31. There are no plans for a family gathering this coming weekend. But, of course, there is no way to avoid one another.

Reunions could be wonderful events–if people who attended were to talk even a little in depth–to learn anew about who we are by sharing perspectives with people who knew us in our developmental years. That could happen both personally as well as culturally.

Consider the history of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, following the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that declared segregated schools were unconstitutional. When Central High implemented its plan of integration in 1957, police and federal troops were needed to escort Black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, to their classes. If we had been there, would we have stood by these students, or would we have been part of the white mob trying to prevent their inclusion in the school? If we were alumni of Central High, would we talk about that history at a reunion and admit the not-so-pleasant memories of our own roles or attitudes in that era?

Consider the history of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942 that enabled the government to exclude people of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific coast and put some 110,000 people in “War Relocation Camps.” The Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that the exclusion orders were constitutional. If we were alumni of west coast schools and gathered for a reunion, would we talk about those days in a way that could offer some healing?

On this web site, I have written pieces that addressed gender issues and the limited opportunities for girls in the Rolfe schools and community in my developmental years. There were many issues, including–but certainly not limited–to the fact that there were no sports opportunities for girls until 1959, and girls were either discouraged or prohibited from taking industrial education or agricultural classes. The rumors in the 1950's had it that some Iowa girl had been killed during a basketball game and strenuous sports activity could be detrimental to a girl in later years–something about inhibiting her ability as a grown woman to have children.

Rolfe probably would not have begun a girls basketball program in 1959 if the school board had not been in discussions with the Des Moines Township school to consolidate the two districts. DMT had a successful girls basketball program. Even so, the newly-established Rolfe team, called the Rammettes, won only a handful of games in its first four years, competing with teams with successful traditions of girls basketball. Conditions began to change slowly, evolving into what might be considered epic successes. In 1968, the Rolfe girls won the state track meet, and in 1971, the Rammette basketball team won a berth in the state tournament.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Amendments (amending the Higher Education Act of 1965). Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. It was a tipping point that prompted many school districts and colleges to change their ways and led to the kind of opportunities that have become so prevalent women.

Consider decisions of the Supreme Court this past month (June 2013) declaring the federal Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional and setting the stage for same sex marriages in California to proceed. I wonder if a person dare write a piece for this web site or ask questions at our reunion about such issues as sexual orientation. Just how many people in our midst during our school days thought of themselves as gay, lesbian, or transgendered? How many people who have gone through the Rolfe schools have evolved over the decades into considering themselves to be in those categories? Will there be same sex couples at the reunion, and how well will other alumni receive them? How comfortable will people be to talk about their daughter who has married another woman or their son who is transitioning to become a woman?

In my memories of Rolfe students or alumni, I recall only one couple that appeared to be gay, and that was when those alumni were in their adult years. I have reviewed home movies that Superintendent Ralph Mortensen shot in the 1950's of Rolfe events. At the proms, boys did dance together in one scene of the Bunny Hop, and two girls danced together to the side of the camera’s view in a three-second scene. Otherwise, the dancing was traditional–boy and girl couples.

Would there ever be a discussion about domestic violence at a Rolfe reunion? Certainly, it had to exist in Rolfe since the town was in no microcosm isolated from culture at large. When I lived in California, a friend asked me about the book A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley about dysfunctional rural life and a large, land-owing family in the Mason City area. "Helen, was it (life) as bad as the book portrays." I said, no, that in some ways the book exaggerated in order to bring home a point. I never knew a patriarch and his daughters to have an outburst in public such as at a ham and Jello, church dinner. I added that underneath the surface, there was a lot of male dominance. I do not know specific examples of domestic violence when I was growing up. But again, Rolfe was not isolated from culture at large. I do know that men had much more influence than women, and that my family was certainly a patriarchy.

I wonder about environmental issues. I recall a junior high science teacher, Mr. Brockman, introducing the concept of erosion. I doubt we even knew the term "environmentalism" then. Maybe no one used it. He also taught vocational agriculture and may have been ahead of his times and sensitive to environmental issues in ways that some people did not want to hear.

I wonder about the influence of the vocational agriculture programs. In recent decades, I have seen some of the "factual films" of the 1940's and 50's produced by the government and industry about the value of commercial fertilizers and agricultural chemicals. I gather that many vocational agriculture instructors showed these films. Films such as Ethyl Corporation promoting the use of commercial fertilizers or General Electric promoting running water, and therefore, electricity on the farm.

I don't recall knowing about Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring until I was in college. But even then, I did not understand it. When much older, though, I read a book titled Beyond Silent Spring, written at least 10 years after Carson's work was published. I understood that book. Although I was appalled about the misuse of the chemical DDT for agricultural and other purposes, I was even more upset with how Carson was pooh-poohed. Even by university officials. It is not a new phenomenon that the corporate world has undue influence on universities, but things seem to have gone way too far when one considers the influence that Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Farm Bureau, and other such giants currently wield.

I wonder if alumni gathering for a reunion would talk about the unwise–and wise–influences of their ag teachers. Maybe I will speak with someone at the reunion who remembers more about Mr. Brockman. Hopefully, he was not run out of town or unduly pressured to change his message. And hopefully, he and other vocational agriculture teachers were progressive and a good model to their students.

Now that I think of it, I recall Mr. Gray who taught agriculture in Rolfe in the early 1950s. He once contacted me in my role as editor of this web site, and we had some wonderful correspondence. I cannot recall the details, but it sounds like as a teacher he was sensitive to environmental issues, and in retirement, he volunteered long stints, living at and monitoring national parks. Then there was Mr. Head, who came to Rolfe to teach biology and coach girls basketball when I was a junior. Eventually, his masters study focused on native flora and fauna. And many years later, in the mid-1980s, Mr. Leibold taught agriculture, then began a career with Iowa State University Extension. I met him in the 1990's when I attended one of his workshops on farm management. I presumed he would chide me and say that I should not take on the role of managing my own land. But just the opposite. He encouraged me to manage my land and mentored me for several years.

I seldom read the Pocahontas Record Democrat, but recently it published a news release about my receiving an award from Practical Farmers of Iowa, and a friend sent me a copy. The award is the first time the organization has honored a non-operator land owner for his or her advocacy of sustainable agriculture. In the same edition of the newspaper, there was a front page article about officials from Pro Cooperative (a network of farmer coops in Rolfe and surrounding towns) visiting cattle-feeding lots in Mexico. The men went there to explore how they could directly market corn from area farmers to the Mexican cattle industry–places with many more thousand head of cattle per feed lot than in America. Do these people who represent our farmers realize that even the large cattle-feeding lots here in the United States are bad on the environment, in general, and have a negative impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics? I suspect the huge cattle lots in Mexico are even worse. Cattle should not have a diet high in corn that necessitates high levels of antibiotics. The misuse means there are fewer effective antibiotics for legitimate human use. Why not, instead, have the cooperative take the lead in finding alternative crops so that instead of most farmers growing just two crops–corn and soybeans–there is more diversity?

There is much that could be discussed at a reunion that could give new insights to what it was like to be part of our heritage, how we were affected, and how we have already grown–or how we might yet grow. But I suspect most people who go to a reunion are simply looking for a fun party, reconnecting, hearing about careers and grandchildren, and seeing how each other has aged. So it is perhaps naive to think those gathered would discuss the kinds of issues I have presented. And besides, there will be a lot of alumni at the reunion with many quick conversations. However, I have occasionally gotten into a position of waiting with another alum and engaged in a great conversation. And yet, even with that rare kind of connection, soon there are other people in the vicinity carrying conversation in a new direction. Some of the talk is the retelling of old stories about how mischievous people had been as students. Some is the recycled adulation of teachers–even ones that I thought were not that great. Some is the disdain for teachers. Some is about the trials and tribulations about people with health problems. Occasionally, some is about understanding one another better. For instance, I recall finding out why a classmate, Joe, had never gone out for athletics. He grew up on a farm that was several miles from town and was needed at home for chores. And perhaps it was at the last reunion that I learned more about Richard whose mom had been a single parent and beautician with her parlor directly across the street from the school. It turns out that probably my most substantial and meaningful reunion conversation was with him. He had seemed like a space cadet in elementary school. I can recall the time he had not brought his homework, using the excuse that his mother had locked it in her safe. But in our reunion conversation, he seemed like one of the more evolved alumni.

At our reunions, will we talk about what it was like for those with disabilities? Karen had polio and stayed at home, but there was a telephone line that linked the classroom and her home on a farm two miles from town so she could participate. Later, she came to the Rolfe school in a wheelchair, and I recall her needing to be carried up and down the flights of stairs. There was at least one mentally challenged student. Linda was a sister and cousin to some of my friends that I met when the Des Moines Township and Rolfe schools joined together. So it was not as though we had all grown up alongside each other, recognizing how to be as understanding and supportive of special needs students as we could have been.

There are the issues related to that consolidation of schools. The merger of the Rolfe and DMT schools seemed quite easy for me. But then, I was not part of the smaller school that essentially was subsumed by the larger school. On a few occasions, some people who had been students at the township school have talked about–or at least alluded to–the hardships they faced at that time. Eventually there was a similar transition with Rolfe being the smaller district.

In 1990, the school held its last senior commencement services, and Rolfe became part of the Pocahontas Area Community School District. The town was then the home for the PAC Middle School and some elementary school classes. However, by 2004, there would be no more classes at Rolfe. The elementary students had already been bused to Pocahontas, and damage to the section of the brick school building built in 1917 forced the middle school to relocate to Pocahontas as well. That older part of the building was razed in 2006.

What was it like for students who moved on their own into the Rolfe district? How well did we, who had attended the Rolfe schools since Kindergarten or elementary school, welcome the newcomers into our midst? There were the twins, Dennis and Diane Callon, who joined my class in seventh grade, after attending a one-room, country school west of Rolfe. There was Ken Carlson who joined us in high school, moving to Rolfe with little advance notice from his parents after what sounded like a scary time in a New York City suburb. There was Diana Trimble who joined us our senior year, moving to the Rolfe district from the little town of Plover that no longer had a high school but sent its students to Havelock for classes. Diana seemed to adjust well, becoming either salutatorian or valedictorian and being elected as the homecoming queen.

I know that throughout my adult years, no matter how much I think I have grown, going to a family gathering or school reunion has seemed like a time of regression with people partially falling into old patterns, scripts, and perceptions of each other. I certainly would like people to understand how I have grown and appreciate some of the challenges that I have had to overcome. But I am not sure that I am all that good at viewing people fresh and giving them the benefit of the doubt. I recall one student, a boy a couple years younger than I was, who was athletic but also appeared to be egotistical and a jerk. I have heard he has had a successful career as a school superintendent. Can I realize that who we are in our youth does not limit who we become as adults?

There are times I wish I could give former teachers the benefit of the doubt–to see the good in them rather than simply thinking ill of them. I will not repeat some of the words I have used to describe a few of those teachers. Many are long gone, and their perspectives gone to the grave. I have written an essay about the truly unfair way in which a sixth-grade physical education class was handled. The story goes like this. Instead of Miss Corsair taking the entire class to the gym for physical education as usual, the head high school basketball coach, Mr. Nielsen, would come to the sixth grade room and take the boys to the locker room, where they changed into white T-shirts, shorts, and Converse shoes, then had a full lesson and workout in basketball. Oh, and should I say, that Rolfe did not yet have sports opportunities for girls? Miss Corsair would keep the girls in the classroom until there were only 15 minutes left in the hour. She then led us to a side area of the gym where we stood single file in our dresses and one-by-one shot free throws. She said each basket counted for two points. I reminded her that a free throw counted as one point. As I told her, while the girls stood in line along the wall, to wait for the boys to finish dressing and come from the locker room to join us to go back to the classroom, I said something to the effect, "This is the worst PE program I have ever seen." How did I know to say that? I really had never seen another "PE program."

Interestingly, in talking to my sister Clara, who is three years older than me, she looks back on that era and has no rankles about gender issues. She has had enough life experience in general and as a school curriculum director that she realizes many of those past cultural biases and practices were wrong, but she was not disturbed about them at the time. Much of my angst went either into being obstreperous or burying my true self and feelings.

A friend who teaches rhetoric at Iowa State University organized the program presented at my church this morning. The service was similar to a readers theater, presenting the words of leaders in the American Revolution, the abolition movement, women's suffrage, and the African American and Gay civil rights movements. I was impressed that these leaders had a sense of right and wrong in an era when their views were probably rebuffed by the majority of Americans. I wondered how they knew what they knew, could be so articulate, and found the courage to speak up in an era when their words may have risked their lives. I wondered how some of them could have kept their equanimity and speak more about love and non-violence than about hate.

I have done my share of speaking up about issues. At times, I have erred on the side of ignorance or insensitivity. I have also gone along with the popular current of thought than I perhaps should have.

Of course, it is difficult to go against the current of society. And that is true of mundane fads as well as our biases. Consider the era around the 1940's and 1950's when there was a movement toward store bought, canned fruit and packaged, white, Colonial bread. Students who brought their own lunch buckets to school with homemade brown bread or canned goods were looked down on. But now, for many people, eating locally-produced and homegrown food is in vogue. Then there was the movement from butter to Oleo margarine. When Oleo first became available, the dairy industry lobbied so that the new stuff could be sold only as an unappealing, white glob in a plastic bag that came with a little capsule of yellow food coloring that a homemaker would have to knead into the white glob to make it look like real butter. In the 1980's, there was talk about margarine being more healthy than butter with its animal fat and cholesterol. But nowadays, those in the know say that we need to use butter and NOT margarine.

When my father and mother Deane and Marion Gunderson, sister Clara, brother Charles, and I moved from Waterloo back to the Rolfe area in 1945, there were at least 60 acres of uncultivated, prairie land in the section where we lived. Interestingly, a photo and journal entry in environmentalist Ada Hayden's archives shows that she knew about that land in the late 1930s and even talked to my grandfather, John Gunderson, about preserving the prairie. Grandpa was not interested.

Around 1946, my father (Rolfe High School class of 1935) tilled most of the prairie, and his stories about that process are interesting. For instance, when he drove the Farmall tractor to pull the moldboard plow to cut the first furrow, he looked behind him–after he had gone a ways–and saw that the heavy, rich sod with its tall vegetation had flopped back into the furrow as if it had been untouched. Also, the first year, he had an excellent crop with few weeds in that field. However, the next season–after again tilling the ground and planting a crop–he had a horrific number of weeds that grew from seeds that had been buried when he plowed the first time. Of course, whether or not a plant is considered a weed depends on the eye of the beholder. The plants that he called weeds would most likely have been native prairie plants.

Dad left two acres of the prairie untilled, and we referred to it as "virgin land." Mother, especially, valued it. I did photography there. But sometime in the 1980s, when the plot was getting weedy, Mother's and Dad's tenant farmers, Dan and Roger, tilled the virgin land. I am not sure Mother knew in advance of the decision. She was angry. It would have been so easy, by the standards of today's environmental practices to have mowed the prairie, spot-sprayed the thistles, and otherwise managed the space to restore it to true prairieland. BTW, true prairieland is in vogue now as compared the attitudes when farmers tilled up most of Iowa's prairie. Indeed, people are realizing that prairie is as important as rain forests in their bio-diversity.

So how is it with national values? In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the president's executive order that enabled the government to send Japanese people to internment camps. I would think most people these days would see the error in that decision. And there are other cultural shifts.

Watching the recent PBS video about the women's movement, I was in awe that some of the leaders were so articulate, outspoken, and courageous long before others, even myself, were concerned about the issues. I particularly recall hearing Rita Mae Brown talk about the "woman identified woman manifesto" and my asking a friend how it was that other women could be so ahead of their times and saying how I had felt disconnected from that movement. My friend glibly said something to the effect that many of those women had grown up on the East Coast where there was much more fomentation and organization related to women's issues.

Of course, the Midwest can claim its share of leaders, including Carie Chapman Catt, one of the leading suffragettes. And there is a book The Prophetic Sisterhood about Unitarian women ministers of the frontier from 1880-1930. The their network originated in Humboldt when two women moved there–Mary Safford to be a minister and her partner from childhood, Eleanor Gordon, to be the school superintendent. Their ideas were as advanced–and accepted by their congregations–as the thoughts of any East Coast leaders of the women's movement, then or later.

I have often wondered if Rolfe's Miss Edna Marcum, who was teacher and principal from 1913 to 1966, or even my great grandmother, Dena Gunderson, who was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union which was aligned with the suffrage movement, ever attended any of the programs offered by the women in the Prophetic Sisterhood. Then I read in later chapters of the The Prophetic Sisterhood that the Presbyterian and other mainline congregations (Miss Marcum and Dena were both Presbyterians) looked askance at the Unitarian teachings.

I must come back to that sixth grade physical education episode. I wonder, in full fairness to Miss Corsair and Mr. Nielsen, if they knew better than to discriminate against the girls but were caught up in the biases of an era in which it would have been hard to do things differently. Threatening, for instance to Miss Corsair's career, if she had challenged the privileged treatment of the boys and limitations for the girls. I have to admit, even though she was not my favorite teacher, that she was probably a strong woman to be single and support herself as a teacher. Yes, I wonder if she realized that episode was not fair but that there was too much to risk in challenging it. I saw Mr. Nielsen at the last all-school reunion. I wonder if he is still alive and might be coming again. Turns out he had a lifelong career as an educator, including being administer of a community college. What are his thoughts in looking back at that era? How much has he evolved since then?

I do recall having Mr. Nielsen as my high school biology teacher. One day, he got completely off topic and gave a little lecture. I don’t know what was bugging him, but he told the girls who were into dating to take care. He suggested that if they did decide to give into their boyfriends and engage in sex, that the girls should have high standards–to demand going to a nice motel or some other place and not simply have cheap sex in the back of the car.

Teaching in Duluth  latest update July 22, 2013
go to beginning of essay about reunions

I did some Internet surfing and found out that a week after Rolfe's all-school reunion, the 1973 class of East High School in Duluth, Minnesota, is having its 40th reunion. Many from that class had been seventh graders when I began teaching girls physical education at Ordean Junior High in 1967. I will not be going to their reunion. But in some ways, I yearn to connect. To admit how young and insensitive I may have been at the time–for instance when Nancy's brother died or Carol had a leg amputated due to cancer. Or even the ways in which I attempted to adopt some of the military-like disciplinary style that Mr. Montague, the boys physical education teacher, used when he called his students to attention for roll call. However, I must admit that taking roll call in an efficient manner was tough. A physical education class is not like a regular class room with assigned seats where the teacher can easily record who is absent. And yes, I would acknowledge that having separate boys and girls classes was becoming archaic. And yes, I would admit that I was uncomfortable with the "package" of sex education classes that the school required that the physical education teachers offer. The school had no health courses. No part of the science or social studies programs dedicated to the topic. The package was offered when the students were in eighth grade. On one day, the girls would gather in the gym with the school nurse, a school counselor, and me (all women) to see the film, "Girl to Woman." Then the that day and the next, we would divide into three groups to discuss the film. Of course, the boys met with three men and saw the film "Boy to Man."

I was nervous about my participation in that class, partially because I was young, naive, with little to no sex experience and had little to no training for leading such a class. But I was concerned about the format. Even then, I was, can I say "appalled," that sex education was taught in such an isolated context. The whole emphasis was on anatomy and physiology–on what people do with their genitals and on reproduction.

No mention of the importance of relationships and good communication. No mention of the need to put the anatomical and physiological in the context of one's values. No mention of how a young person could channel her feelings. No mention of the effect of hormones on thoughts and behaviors. No discussion of the nature of crushes and how to deal with them. No admonition to set boundaries and neither exploit another person nor be exploited. No acknowledgement of the pleasure of intimate relationships. I want to stand up and shout that even then, I did not approve of the curriculum. But I went along.

I think of the petition I wrote in seventh grade in the Rolfe schools. A petition for us to be able to have girls basketball. I think of how we eventually did have girls basketball, beginning when I was in 9th grade, but with a team that lost most of its games. I recall how the Duluth schools had few sports programs for girls when I began teaching there. Perhaps the only offering was the annual, city-wide golf meet. I did everything in my power to organize an extensive intramural program for girls and inter-school competition, calling other physical education teachers to organize basketball games, swim meets, or a city-wide track meet held at the University of Minnesota-Duluth track.

Some of my most fun memories are from of late afternoon events. There was the afternoon when some older girls were playing the championship game of their volleyball tournament on one end of the gym, and for a reason that I cannot remember, there were several seventh grade girls on the other end of the gym. We decided to have a pickup basketball game, but with unbalanced teams. I was on the team short-handed either in terms of talent or numbers versus a full-fledged team. It was an experience of pure play. I smile to think of the eagerness and playfulness of those girls. I think of how I, at five-foot-nine-inches, towered above them. I could hold the ball high over head with the opponent players trying to grab it from me, then tossing the ball, sometimes with a behind-the-back pass, to an open player on my team who made the basket. Sometimes, I would simply stand and watch the girls from both teams scramble after the ball. This was not a practice session geared to achievement. This was basketball as a game–as spontaneous play. Instruction in skills would come another day in class or when we formed a team to compete against Woodland Junior High School.

It is also fun to recall the leadership of many of the girls. Although I had worked had to establish a model for our intramural tournaments, from an early age, there were girls such as Myra and Jann who could take charge–setting up the equipment, getting out whistles and scorecards, assigning teams to their courts, and write a PA announcement to be left in the office to be read the next morning.. I delighted in their leadership abilities, especially at such a young age, and often wonder how their lives have evolved.

On another occasion, I organized an afterschool, co-ed, square dance party in the ground floor social hall. My predecessor, Miss Dressen, who had gone on to teach at East High but mentored me, and Mr. Montague, the boys physical education teacher at Ordean, had developed a co-ed dance program for the ninth graders while Georgie was still at Ordean. So when I came to the school, Mr. Montague and I continued that tradition. We offered two weeks of square dance and two weeks of social dance. Looking for something to add to the afterschool program, and having heard of a dance caller who lived in the Lakeside area, I invited the man to call for the square dance. The party was great fun. What was the most fun was that the caller brought a groovy recording of "I love green onions" and taught us all the Patty Cake Polka–a great mixer that I had never known of before. The students loved the Patty Cake Polka. I knew the experience was a great success when the students, on their own initiative, arranged to dance the Patty Cake Polka with the green onion song at their ninth-grade equivalent of a prom.

If I were able to write to some of my Ordean students or talk with them at a reunion, I would hope they would appreciate being in touch with me. But of course, some of them probably hold me in much disdain as I hold some of my Rolfe teachers. I would hope they would realize my years in Duluth (1967 to 1971) were developmental ones and forgive me and realize that I am far different than I was then. BTW, I left Duluth to get a master's degree in instructional media technology at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Being in Duluth was certainly a different experience than being in Iowa. I was a newcomer to a large school district, harsher winters, steeper hills, hockey fervor, people of Finnish descent, and an economy that ebbed and flowed in its vitality over the decades with timber and fur industries, then mining.

I recall having a large, brown, Chevrolet station wagon with stick shift transmission. What a challenge on icy days to drive up or down the steep streets. And the coldest New Years eve nights that I have ever experienced were in Duluth.

Then there were the days when the students and I would begin a physical education class on the Ordean outdoor play fields that were only a few blocks away from Lake Superior. The weather could be sunny and warm, but the wind would shift, bringing colder weather from the lake and dropping the temperature 20 degrees in a matter of minutes. The only thing to do was end our activity and have the students run for the building to change clothes to go to their next classes.

I loved much about the Duluth–living in a basement studio apartment in a ranch style house right on Lake Superior. It belonged to John and Pauline Swain. John a retired physical educator and cross country coach from Central High School. Pauline had grown up in Thompson, Iowa, some 40 miles from my hometown.

I loved Lester Park, a public golf course, with its wild berries and animals and beautiful views of ore boats on the lake; easy access to ski hills; and being part of Lakeside Presbyterian Church with a progressive minister named Roger Kunkel. I recall going to a new member meeting. The only people there were Roger, the associate minister John Lindquist, and an elder. Roger said that since I was already a Presbyterian, and there were no other potential new members, we could all go home, and I could join the congregation on Sunday–unless I had questions. I decided to ask questions about the virgin birth and eternal life that I had never before expressed. To this day, I often speak about how much I appreciated Roger's calm and insightful answers.

I appreciated the eagerness and energy of the seventh grade girls. Yet, I also recall how some of them were clueless in the first weeks of classes when learning how to work the combinations for the locks to their locker room baskets. Some of the girls and their parents would complain about items being stolen. Most of the time, the girls had been negligent by not locking their shoes, uniforms, or other gear in their baskets.

I was not good at keeping tight control of the small room where students would check out swim suits and towels. And often, after a whirlwind day of several classes using the locker room, I felt like a parent, cleaning up the towels and other items strewn around the wildly-messy room. 

The girls had only a 55-minute class period to change clothes, report to class, participate in activity for fewer than 30 minutes, and get back to the crowded locker room to change clothes and be on time to their next class. And there was both a gym and pool.

I shake my head at what a challenge it was for the girls when they had to participate in a swimming class. Those were the days of long, straight hair. It was a challenge to dry that hair with the few hair dryers in the locker room, and many times, the girls moved to their next classes with wet hair that did not look at all like they wanted. Besides that, I was never good at watching the clock, and there were no automated bells to let us know when it was time to wrap up a swimming or other activity. I shake my head at the memories. Yes, many of the girls loved to swim. But what a challenge to be a quick change artist. No wonder some girls grow into womanhood with bad memories of physical education. I did not like the constraints of those classes either.

Interestingly, Mr. Montague and the administration showed no concern about the school not providing swim suits for the boys and that the boys were required to swim in the nude for their swimming classes.

I would often suggest to Mr. Montague that we offer additional co-ed classes. As it was with teaching swimming classes consisting of girls only, it was common for me to have 27 or more students ranging in skills from non-swimmers to those who were on the Northland Country Club team. I had no assistant but was responsible for being towel and locker room supervisor, lifeguard, disciplinarian, and instructor. My logic was that if we had co-ed courses, we could offer more variety. Mr. Montague finally agreed to my teaching a junior lifesaving class for ninth graders in the pool while he taught bowling for the ninth graders in the gym. But it took him a long time to come to that conclusion. His argument against going co-ed was that, because the school did not provide swim suits for the boys, they would have to bring their own, and then there would be a big hassle knowing what to do with all the wet suits between classes.

It turns out that the ninth grade girls insisted on some changes. The swim suits that the school provided were one-piece, solid black, tank suits. The girls did not want to wear that style in front of boys. So we allowed the girls to bring more fashionable suits from home.

Another of my favorite memories is of a student named John. He seemed to be a thoughtful young man but not keen on school. However, I discovered that he was quite a swimmer and knew a lot about snorkeling and SCUBA diving–areas that I knew little about. I arranged for him to teach those lessons. The other students paid close attention, and John was a patient and excellent teacher. He blossomed in a way that he had not in other areas of school life. I was proud of him. I was also proud that I had found a way for Ordean students to get their Red Cross junior lifesaving certificates.

The junior high years were big in terms of transitions for the girls. Many who were athletic and involved in sports shifted their focus in about eighth, ninth, or tenth grades. Some opted to be cheerleaders rather than participate in sports. Some simply quit sports because there was still some stigma that being athletic meant that a girl was not as feminine as she should be.

There was also chauvinism. Even though the Duluth system was much more progressive than other schools I had known, and even though there was much to be admired about the school and other teachers, some of the men at Ordean Junior High some attitudes. The teachers' lounges were segregated with the women’s on the third floor and the men’s on the first floor. My office and the cafeteria were also on the first floor. Women teachers could go through the food line, then eat in the men’s lounge, but could be there only briefly. Soon, some of the men would point to the clock and verbally nudge the women out of the room.

Although I now have a much greater respect for labor unions than I did then, my memories are negative about how some men commandeered that room. Many of them were union leaders, and I believe they used their lounge–dare I call it a man cave–to commiserate and plot. The men also had their swimming parties (in the buff in the school pool) and softball games (with beer at each base) to which the women were not invited. Admittedly, I knew of no other women faculty members who would have appreciated a pool party or softball game.

The school district hosted a golf tournament that was presumably for men only. However, Carol Marshal was an extraordinarily gifted golfer. She was perhaps 13 years older than me, had taught physical education, then became a guidance counselor at Washington Junior High that fed Central High School. I believe that after she retired from the school system, she became a teaching pro with the LPGA. The men at either Washington or Central, knew of Carol's talent and allowed her to be part of their team. When I told Mr. Montague that Carol was going to be in the tournament and I would like to be in the tournament, he said, "Helen, you don't want to be like Carol, do you?" I am still not quite clear what he was insinuating–probably something to the effect that women should not come across as being aggressive nor ask for equal opportunity.

In hindsight, Jim Montague's response regarding the golf tournament is even more puzzling now than it was at the time as I piece together the memories. Indeed, there were ways in which he was ahead of the times. He and I were good friends and colleagues. We had coffee together each morning. We golfed together on many occasions. He even let me golf with him at Northland Country Club across the street from Ordean. BTW, Northland had rules restricting women from being on the course during certain hours on weekends, while men had open access to the course.

Jim and I experimented with offering co-ed dance, lifesaving, and bowling classes to the ninth grade students at Ordean. He was the swim coach for both boys and girls at Northland  He advocated to allow, Lisa, a standout diver on his team at Northland and a student at Ordean, to enter the school district's city-wide, boys swim meet. I was happy about his decision and proud of Lisa. I also knew it was not an easy position for her. I sensed that she felt stressed with all the hype and expectations of her. Lisa did win the diving competition, and her picture with a caption was published in Sports Illustrated in a section at the back about people in the news. At least a few boys were angry. They said they were miffed, not because she won, but because she got so much attention while, if a boy had won, he would not have received any attention in the prestigious magazine for winning a junior high meet. I could understand their rationale. And yet, I wondered if, indeed, they were uncomfortable with a girl being better than the boys but could not admit those feelings. I could also understand that kind of dilemma.

Fortunately, as I look back on those days, I realize there were a lot of men at Ordean who did not have chauvinistic attitudes. I wonder what has become of some of them such as Mr. Olson.

It is interesting how the passing of time changes relationships. Although those seventh-grade girls were 10 years younger than I was, that is not a significant difference in age now. I have many friends who are in their late 50s as would be those girls. What would it be like to connect as adults with our various life experiences and the ways in which we have evolved since the late sixties?

What careers have some of my students carved out? What leadership roles have they had? What achievements would they list? What have been the challenges in their lives? What can we learn from each other?

One of my mistakes as a teacher was to see the students through a lens, looking at them only as junior high students, not understanding the longer perspective. Not understanding how life is a process, and people are not defined by who they are as youth.

Eventually, I may need to write more about those Duluth years. But for now, I guess the point is how much we are all connected as part of the human race. It is fun to reminisce, meaningful to recall issues from the past, and important to be gracious and allow that we are neither bronze nor marble statues fixed into a certain personality or set of beliefs.

There have been leaders, even in our own histories. I think of Stu Webb, popular hometown boy from the Rolfe class of 1949, whose parents, Jane and Morris Webb, had the Main Street drug store that had been in the Webb family since his grandfather, Charlie Webb, founded it in 1889. Stu  took over the pharmacy after Morris died in 1958. But that career did not fit Stu, and he began a journey. First to law school at the University of Iowa, then 25 years of traditional and family law practice in Minneapolis, where he also struggled with challenges in his personal life. Then in the 1980s, he founded the collaborative law movement. Part of Stu’s journey was to return to Rolfe to deliver the commencement address in about 1966. He spoke about race, telling graduates that although they may never have had much contact with Blacks, they needed to prepare themselves for a future in which they would be connected with Blacks. Stu did not return to his Alma Mater with cute jokes or cliché advice. He spoke about issues that some people, especially the adults, may not have wanted to hear.

I think of the junior high students in Duluth who protested the Vietnam War. I regret I had my head in the sand and was not more aware of war issues or civil rights issues. I also regret that I did not yet get it that the issues I was facing in sports were related to women's issues and the women's movement as a whole.

May our reunions not simply be ones of shallow banter. On the other hand, perhaps they are not times for deep rumination. But they could be times for looking at small ways in which people were leaders in ways that were not always popular. Times for seeing excellent character in the people of our history–of our culture.

Although not totally relevant, I think of these words from a letter that modern dance leader Martha Graham wrote to one of her students Agnes DeMille who became a successful choreographer for such plays as Oklahoma.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is; not how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

~dancer Martha Graham to Agnes deMille

And here is another of my favorite quotes.

We are all longing to go home to someplace we have never been, a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us. Eyes will light up as we enter. Voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.

~from Starhawk's Dreaming the Dark

Perhaps the key to a reunion is to go, letting go of any notion of being in control. Allowing for serendipity. Being centered. Being willing to listen. Being willing to grow some more. Acknowledging that life is one long journey, and that we are still in our developmental years.

And hopefully, there will be great conversations and not people simply pushing their Smart Phones in front of other peoples’ faces. Things have changed.

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