The death of a beloved educator.

I was going to post a blog about my time away in Germany. I was going to write about how those five days were some of the most carefree and blissful days of the last eighteen months. I was also going to write about how guilt still niggled at my subconscious, telling me I was wrong to leave my daughter at home. I was going to convey the sense of pride I felt after completing my first annual physical fitness test post-partum. I was going to exalt in my very average score, chuffed to bits on how well I did despite a whole host of baby-related aftereffects.

But then came the news yesterday via text that one of my favorite educators in my hometown died unexpectedly due to complications after bypass surgery. This comes less than a year after the news that one of my favorite band teachers died of cancer, and another band teacher is fighting through his own battle with the same disease. I think, perhaps, a lot of people don’t realize the impact someone has made on their life – especially a teacher or educator – until that person is gone. It takes time to mature and grow and reflect on who has influenced us to be the person we are today. I’ve had the fortunate sense of timing to tell most of the people in my life who’ve played such a profound part that I appreciated their mentorship, help, and coaching. I don’t feel I missed out on this occasion, either. But it’s still a shock to realize one of your favorite people from your hometown has died.

Mrs. Chirhart was just a name to me in elementary school. I was seven or eight and more interested in making mud pies and playing cars under the tire swing with E.J. She was the educator in charge of the entire school district’s Gifted and Talented Program, PENSAR, and my twin sister had already been accepted. I know a lot went on behind the scenes, with my mother talking to Mrs. Chirhart about me and my potential. The thought was that usually one twin isn’t alone in their talents and that mine were just late to bloom. This was around the same time I first thought I was stupid, because I didn’t see the point in memorizing my multiplication tables. I just didn’t want to do it. I ended up attending summer school before the fourth grade to beef up my math skills. It worked. Not only did I thrive in my math classes, I was accepted into PENSAR as well. (Eight years later, I would write a short article in the Star Tribune thanking my summer school math teacher, Mrs. Olson.)

This was a huge boost to my confidence. For those twins out there, you understand there’s no off time from rivalry with your sibling. Even if you don’t want to, everything turns into a competition. Imagine one of you getting great grades, breaking off halfway through the school day to do some sort of “smart kid” class, and lording it over you every day. Suddenly, I had showed that I was her equal (bear in mind, this was back when we fought nearly every day, were polar opposites, and didn’t even share a “home room” together, much less classes). My hard work and dedication catapulted me into the same circles as her. It was a turning point in my young life.

Mrs. Chirhart was amazing. The dozen or so of us elementary kids in PENSAR would stay in the Gifted and Talented Program as long as it was funded, which happened to be through middle school. There was no more money after that. The group of us that started together, ended together at the top of our class. She would gather us in a room and give us brainteasers, puzzles, and creative assignments. My favorite were the sheets of paper she would pass out that had a few lines or shapes already drawn on. We could draw anything we wanted, so long as we somehow incorporated those shapes already made. The best part was seeing what everyone else drew. I remember that someone incorporated the shape in the negative sense, drawing around it instead of making it the main object. My mind was blown.

Mrs. Chirhart also first introduced me to Nutella, a love affair I have continued to this day. She signed us up for competitions with other students in far-flung schools, sometimes building the most weight-bearing bridge out of Elmer’s glue and popsicle sticks (the idea being that the best architecture design would win, though I read the rules closely and decided it said nothing about how much glue you could use and so my partner and I just piled on the whole bottle and “won” that way), sometimes being given a handful of random objects and being asked to build the highest structure (the winning group simply took the duct tape, stuck a piece to the ceiling, and unrolled it to the table – pure genius). I think there was a robot-themed competition, perhaps even an acting scenario. I can’t remember the exact details, but I do remember I loved every second of PENSAR. And I loved every day with Mrs. Chirhart. If my summer school session taught me I was smart, then the Gifted and Talented Program taught me I was creative. That sense of uniqueness, of being different (and that’s okay), launched me into Creative Writing. That program showed me there is more than one way to solve a problem and that every person brings a different perspective. This ability to adapt, collaborate, and work together has helped me throughout my life, from Varsity sports to flying helicopters in the Marine Corps to teaching writing workshops to British students.

If I have any regret about my experiences with Mrs. Chirhart, it’s that I didn’t stay in contact with her. Not really. You go about your life as a high schooler, then college student, doing the good things your early educators taught you. Study hard, work hard. You start your first job and you’re so happy and excited and nervous and thrilled to be making a paycheck and doing the thing you’ve worked for, you rarely look back. I tried. But I do wish I would have told Mrs. Chirhart more recently how much of a positive impact she had on my formative years. I do wish I would have told her how excited I am to have a daughter of my own to cheer on in her creative efforts as she gets older. I’m sure she was aware and is beaming down with a knowing smile. There are many others like me who have benefitted from her infectious personality and tireless championing of the Gifted and Talented Program, but let me say it again: Mrs. Chirhart, thank you.

We miss you greatly.

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