I came home from Honduras and spent days catching up on all the news and happenings during my time away. There was Penn State news, Olympics news, Colorado news, work news, family news, and Perry the pug news. One piece of news, however, flew under the radar until a friend mentioned it to me this past weekend. It turned out to be, for me, the biggest news of everything I had missed. On July 25, 2012, Carolyn Nonnenberg passed away at the age of 69. Carolyn Nonnenberg was my English teacher in 9th grade. I, like everyone else, have a hall of teachers who stick in my memory: a crotchety teacher who liked to discipline me with a ruler, a teacher who let us have a dachshund as a class pet, a teacher who denied me the right to learn an instrument, a teacher whose class mascot Marcus the Frog (stuffed mascot) we hanged from the ceiling, a teacher we learned we could bring to tears with our terrible behavior, a teacher who got me to actually like math and science, a teacher who helped me get a job, and on and on. Mrs. Nonnenberg will always be more than just another face in that long hall of past teachers. She is one of the few that has shaped the course of my life.
I remember the first day of class with Mrs. Nonnenberg. I was a tiny, wiry freshman with a large JanSport backpack and a healthy fear of high school. The business-like approach of my giant history teacher and my computer apps teacher's terrifying resemblance to a living skeleton had me thinking that all my expectations of high school were true--and maybe worse. I plopped myself down in a seat in Mrs. Nonnenberg's English class, timidly awaiting another 45 minutes of painful high school indoctrination.
And like a window shade flapping open to allow an avalanche of sun to bathe a dark and dusty room in golden light, Mrs. Nonnenberg welcomed us to Honors English. She swung and craned her arms and let her voice sail and sink as she explained to us that she loved to teach and loved English. That day, I knew that I would love English as well.
Mrs. Nonnenberg had a touch of an endearing raspiness to her voice, which I can only assume was from years of booming her voice enthusiastically over generations of goofy 9th graders. She used that voice to cheer for me and encourage me to develop my art and my music. She used that voice to scold me when I wasn't focused. She used that voice to drive me to do better when she knew I hadn't given my best.
She allowed me to choose a book for my book report that would become one of my all-time favorites--Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I dressed up as Frodo when I presented my novel (which involved tussling my hair, going barefoot, and shoving a pillow in my shirt), and I literally covered my ears as tight as I could when two of my classmates presented The Two Towers and The Return of the King because I desperately didn't want the ending spoiled for me.
She made us memorize and recite a passage from Romeo and Juliet. (Eleven years later, I would make my 9th grade Honors English class do the same.)
She taught me how to be enthusiastic for life, for literature, for poetry, for art, for English, because she lived it each day in front of me.
When I explain to my students that I love to teach and that I love English and that I love life, it is her lilting, raspy voice I hear in my head as I echo her.
Carolyn Nonnenberg is the reason I am an English teacher. She is the reason I am an artist. She is the reason I am a writer. She is the reason I love what I do.
And I will forever be grateful to her for that.