It was September 3, 1971, the first day of my senior year at Denison High School. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it. I knew I’d make it through the year and come out on the other side a high school graduate, but I was more or less ambivalent. The only feeling I might have had was a feeling of being different. I was so different from my brothers in so many ways, one of which was graduating high school.
My father had been so disappointed in both his sons. Neither turned out to be anything like him. He must have held each of them as babies and read bedtime stories to them just as he had read stories to me. But neither of them liked to read. For that matter, they never showed any interest in anything my father enjoyed.
I, on the other hand, did my level best to be the child my father had been waiting for. I was the child who reflected everything that he was. I was born very late in my parent’s marriage, when they were both almost 40. He taught me to read when I was three and I was his constant shadow. Even when he tried to get away from me, I would grab onto his leg and sit on his shoe and he would have to drag me along wherever he went. Unfortunately, my attempts to hold onto him had not kept him from dying when I was seven years old.
And now, so many years later, I was a senior in high school. So many of the memories had faded over the last ten years. I couldn’t remember a lot about him, nothing concrete, anyway. I knew he loved me a lot and I knew he was proud of me. Sometimes I wondered what he would think of me as a teenager. He’d be proud I was still in school, about to reach the finish line.
There was only one thing, though. I got Miss Bledsoe for Civics Class.
I stared in horror at the card listing off my scheduled classes for the year. There, in handwritten print, was Room 217. That room represented nothing but torture for me. The year before, I had suffered through American History at the hands of Miss Bledsoe and her beloved Spanish Armada. She had written her thesis on the topic and apparently thought it a great idea to spend an entire semester having her students learn every detail about it as well. Forget about the Civil War or the American Revolution. The class should have been called “Spanish Armada History.” And now I was destined to spend another semester hearing how it related to civics, apparently.
I couldn’t believe it.
The first chance I got, I flagged down my friend Melanie in the halls. It took a while to get her attention. The halls were crowded and Melanie’s eyesight wasn’t so good. She had worn glasses since we were little girls and had tried a couple of times to wear contacts, but that hadn’t turned out so well. I waved at her through the crowds and, squinting, she finally saw me.
Once I caught up, I showed her my schedule card.
“I’m quitting school,” I said with a whimper. I knew I wouldn’t really do it, but the idea of getting away from Miss Bledsoe and her armed Spaniards made me consider the possibilities of being a car-hop at the local drive-in. “I’ll just…go be a car-hop.”
Melanie snorted. “You’d never make it as a car-hop. They wear skates to carry food.” She looked down at my feet. “We both know how that would turn out.”
So much for trying to have a dream.
“You should come to class with me,” she continued. “Mr. Donowho is a whole lot more interesting.”
I nodded. “That’s who I was hoping to get, but whoever makes these schedules thought I needed another year of persecution.”
We were pushed along by the crowd in the hallway and I stayed by Melanie’s side expecting her to do something.
“I can’t go through another semester with Miss Bledsoe! I’m sorry, but I just can’t!” I screamed to be heard above the bustling crowd of students.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Come on!” She gestured for me to follow her into Room 214, Mr. Donowho’s class.
“I can’t go in there!” I said. “I’m not in his class!” But my will was stronger than my words and I followed her into Room 214.
We sat down. I looked around the room and gulped. I just knew someone was going to find me out. I always obeyed the rules and never questioned authority, even if it was on a three-by-five index card.
“Let me see your schedule again,” Melanie said.
I handed her my card, thinking she just wanted to have evidence when they convicted me of being in the wrong class. The thought of it made me second guess my decision. I started to get up from the desk, but Mr. Donowho walked in right at that moment and sat down at his own desk.
“Here, give me my card back,” I told Melanie. “I’ll just go now and no one will get in trouble.” I could feel my heart beating in my throat. If I didn’t get out soon, I was going to cry.
Melanie handed the card back to me. “Stay put. Now you are in this class.” She pointed to the class assignments. She had changed the room number from 217 to 214. I nearly screamed.
“Oh no! This will never work, Melanie. Now you’ve done it! How am I ever going to explain this?”
In what felt like record time, Mr. Donowho went through the roster of names. “Is there anyone else I haven’t called?”
I sat still. My first instinct was to be like a rabbit–just blend in and stay quiet, no one would know I was there.
“I don’t think you called Karen’s name,” said Melanie. I detected a little bit of know-it-all in her tone.
“Where is Karen?” asked the teacher, searching through the faces of students.
Melanie turned around and looked at me. I was pretty sure there was a gloating look on her face when she said, “There she is.”
Mr. Donowho motioned for me to approach his desk with my schedule. It was the longest walk I’d ever taken. I was pretty sure I was going to pass out before I got up there. I just didn’t do things like this. I was good and honest and no one would ever believe that I had had anything to do with this.
I tried not to hyperventilate while I stood at the teacher’s desk. Instead, I poured all my energy into glaring at Melanie who got me into this. She spent the time trying to appear very interested in her new civics textbook, but her twitching lips gave her away. She would really think it was funny if I was sent packing to the civics class across the hall in Miss Bledsoe’s room.
In my head, I worked through the semantics of the situation. It wouldn’t exactly be lying if Mr. Donowho asked me if I had changed that room number and I said no. I peered down at the card sitting on his desk. You would have to look really close to tell that the room number had been changed, but to me, it practically screamed “KAREN IS IN THE WRONG ROOM.”
Finally, Mr. Donowho turned his head to look at me. This was it. I knew it was coming. I held my breath and tried to prepare myself. I’d heard all about Mr. Donowho and I knew he could ruin my entire senior year if he wanted to.
Mr. Donowho ran his finger down the list of students registered in this class, and he said, “I don’t see your name here.”
All I could muster in response was a shrug of my shoulders. Speech was no longer an option for me. There was no explanation.
The thought flashed through my mind just then, Maybe I’m more like my brothers than I thought. Maybe I won’t finish high school! Maybe my dad would be just as disappointed in me as he was in them!
But then Mr. Donowho did the unthinkable. He wrote my name in the class register. He made me an official student of his class!
“They probably made a mistake at the office,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the first time!” And he chuckled. He literally made a soft, forgiving little laugh that reassured me and sent me back to my seat with relief.
This was a new feeling. It was an awakening of possibilities outside the box I had lived in all my life. My heart began to beat faster and stronger. I no longer felt as if I might faint. Instead, every nerve in my body trilled at the thought that this might actually work.