Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Helen Schersten (1928-2012): She Made the Fremd English Department Great!

Sad news this week as former Fremd High School English Department chair Helen Schersten passed away in Palatine at the age of 83.  Former students will remember Helen as THE teacher of British Literature in the Fremd English Department.  She had more literature and composition knowledge in her little finger than I will ever have.  I just feel very lucky to have worked for her for twelve years.  What a classic Helen was!

Today's Fremd English teachers like to say that their department is the best high school English department in the country, and they're probably right.  But most of the teachers teaching English at Fremd today never heard of Helen Schersten.

Well, it's time for you to learn!

Helen was teaching English at Palatine High School in the late 1960's when an opening occurred at Fremd for a department chair.  She always said she left P.H.S. because "of that damn coffee pot!"  Apparently the teachers at PHS always were arguing about who would buy coffee, and the coffee pot used to get left on and smell up the office.  Somehow management of the coffee pot fell to Helen, and she had had enough of the department coffee pot.  I smiled when I was in the Fremd English Office last year and saw a coffee pot sitting over in the corner.  "What would Helen say about that!" I thought.

Helen saw the Fremd English Department grow from a handful of teachers to almost 30 full-time faculty during her 20 + years as department chair.  She worked with three principals:  Dick Kolze, Stan Smith, and Tom Howard, and between them they assembled some tremendous English teachers.

I was completely intimidated by Helen and by my colleagues when I first started teaching English at Fremd in 1981.  Dwight Aukee always gives me a hard time about wearing a suit to school my first two years, but the reason I wore a suit was because I felt so inadequate next to teachers like Dwight, Chuck Morlock, Henry Sampson, Anne Hume, Merle Taber, Pam Bylsma, Rosemary Herringer, Judy Augspurger, Kevin Brewner, Len Fiocca,  Linda Cannon, Thom Smith, Kathy Sobeski, Margaret Lang, Karen Atchison, Mary Ann Fritz, Sharon Hein, Fred Wilkens, Carrie Kolder, and others who I am sure I'm forgetting.

But as the years wore on, I became close to all of the above teachers and especially close to Helen, which is ironic because she really hated me when I was first hired.

I remember during my interview with Helen and Principal Howard how Helen looked at my Western Illinois University undergraduate transcript, looked at me, and then looked at Mr. Howard and said, "I don't know how he can teach English; he never even  had a Shakespeare course!  These are all broadcasting and journalism courses, and his grade point average is abysmal."  It was 2.316!

On my way home to Sandwich after the interview, I was so depressed I stopped and picked up a six-pack of beer in St. Charles and drank it in the car.  The wife was ironing in the dining room when I walked in the house.  "She hated me!" I said to my wife about Helen.  "I just wasted half a day.  There's no way I'm going to get that job--not with her in charge!" 

But Principal Tom Howard liked me because I was 33 years old and had eleven years of what he called "life experience" so off I went to Fremd to teach English in August of 1981.

My first classroom evaluation from Helen was mediocre:  she said I "was too friendly with the students," and she checked "needs to improve" in numerous boxes on the form.  But as I was working on my English master's degree, Helen and I started talking more.  I discovered that I liked Shakespeare and would ask her questions about Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar.  We would also have long discussions about writing the term paper for the expository composition class.  After my second year teaching, she gave me two English 108 classes, which is accelerated freshman English.  This was a real honor for a second year teacher.  Later, she cajoled me into teaching Advanced Placement English.  Suddenly I realized that I had arrived as a teacher.

There were lots of battles over the years that Helen fought with the Fremd administration and the honchos at the district office.  We had developed an elective program at Fremd for junior and senior students.  Instead of taking English III or English IV, students could sign up for a course like Science Fiction and Fantasy or Film Study and get credit for junior and senior English.  There were lots of courses, and students could even choose their own teachers, just like they would later do for their college courses.  The kids loved it!

But the district administration didn't like the electives.  "All schools must be the same," the superintendent said.  And Conant High School's English Department didn't want the elective program either and was fighting to return to English III and English IV.  Yawn!

I can remember us sitting around the office just chatting about how the district wanted to dump the electives, and somebody would come up with an argument supporting them.  Helen would say, "That's a good point!  I'm going to go talk to Tom about that!"  She'd grab her purse, walk rapidly out the door, and motor along the halls with her head down and her right shoulder brushing up against the lockers.  When teachers walking the other way saw Helen walking like that, they knew not to say "hi."  Helen Schersten was on a mission.

Helen made sure that all of us attended the district curriculum meetings to support the elective program.  We would pack the room, and listen as Helen defended what we were doing at Fremd.  Occasionally, she would ask one of us to stand up and talk about a specific class.  I remember when she asked me to stand up and talk about expo. comp.  "This is Jim Wyman," she said to superintendent Gerry Chapman.  "He's one of our best composition teachers."  I must have blushed thirty shades of red, but I stood up and described what Kevin Brewner and I were doing in the class.

We lost the elective program, but it wasn't for lack of effort.  Helen used to say that we would just incorporate elements of the electives into English III and English IV, and that's what we did!  As Dwight would always say, "The closed classroom door is a great equalizer!"

Last Sunday I was looking for some World War II stuff of my dad's for an exhibit at the Palmer House in Crystal Lake sponsored by the Crystal Lake Historical Society.  I came upon one of Helen's later classroom evaluations that my wife had sent to my mom back in the late 80's.  Helen wrote about how far I drove to school and how I was always one of the first teachers there in the morning.  Then she wrote about the amount of time I spent with students working individually on writing.  My mom treasured that evaluation.  She still had it sitting next to her chair when she died in 2006.  It was pretty spooky that I read it on Sunday morning, the day of Helen's death.

Then yesterday I went to a job interview at Joliet Junior College for an adjunct teaching position in the English Department.  The secretary had me filling out forms before the interview, and one of them was a form for direct deposit.  "How can I be filling out a direct deposit form when I don't even have the job yet?" I thought to myself.

When I went in and met the department chair at JJC, the first thing she asked me was what classes I wanted to teach.  All I could think of was that Helen was looking over my shoulder.  I'm scheduled to teach three writing classes in the fall. 

I last saw Helen at Dwight Aukee's end of the year party in June of 2009.  She and her husband Howie were drinking draft beer as we chatted about what was going on in our lives.  I remember watching Helen and Howie walking arm-and-arm up the driveway to their car in the summer twilight. 

There are lots more stories about Helen that can be told.  She had been chair for more than a decade before I started at Fremd.  Helen was the foundation for what the English Department at Fremd has become today.

Rest in peace, Helen.  You were one in a million!

1 comment:

  1. Jim -- Yes. Helen Schersten was a grand lady who built a department. Those of us who work in the Fremd English Department stand on her shoulders every day.

    She saved my butt more than once, and I learned a lot from her about how to work with and around strong personalities, how to put up a fight when a fight is called for, and how to keep this job in perspective.

    Thanks for your eloquence here.