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Vai's View: English teacher's commitment made profound impact

Published: Friday, May 11 2012 2:35 p.m. MDT

Visiting my English teacher, Barbara Nielsen, whom I hadn’t seen since I graduated from Mesa High School in 1980. Mrs. Nielsen was also my mother’s visiting teacher and the faculty adviser of the high school newspaper when I was a student.

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Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series that follows and explores Vai Sikahema's quest to find and thank the people in his life who assisted him in his youth. Read the first in the series here: A home teaching companion reunion rekindles a testimony

Barbara Nielsen is an angel.

Because angels are rarely compensated in cold, hard cash, Mrs. Nielsen taught high school English. It happened to be at my high school in Mesa, Ariz. And it was my good fortune that Mrs. Nielsen also lived in our ward and was my mother's visiting teacher for a time, just as I was arriving at Mesa High School in 1977.

Mesa High in the '70s was a powerhouse in wrestling and football and I excelled in both, in addition to track as a ninth-grader at one of Mesa High's two feeder schools: Mesa Junior High. The high school coaches routinely visited my freshmen games, wrestling matches and track meets to scout my performance so I was identified early for special treatment when I arrived at Mesa High.

Once at the high school, I was placed in classes that were taught by assistant coaches — Arizona history, economics, algebra, etc., — ostensibly to keep me eligible. No one ever doctored my grades, but I was given plenty of latitude. If a test fell on Friday, the coach may let me take the test on Monday, so I could concentrate and focus my energy on the game. It wasn't uncommon to be given an extra day or two to turn in assignments or extra credit work. It seems unbelievable now, but one coach routinely gave me his car keys and had me run errands — picking up his dry cleaning or making deposits at his bank — during his economics class. I guess he figured I'd learn economics by helping the economy, never mind the enormous liability risk of a student driving around in his personal vehicle during school hours. But that's what happened.

I was an immature teenager who enjoyed the star treatment, raised by immigrant parents who really didn't understand the nuances of the public school system.

In this backdrop, Barbara Nielsen stopped me in the hallways at church one Sunday and insisted that I take her sophomore English class. Because she visited my mother every month, she followed up and made certain my mother knew of her request.

Reluctantly, I signed up.

It was a living hell. Her deadline for homework was inviolable. She insisted on first, second, third and final drafts. She scrutinized my work and, I thought, needlessly henpecked me. I loathed her monthly visits to my mother because she insisted to Mom that I be present. Can you imagine the indignity for a high school star athlete to sit next to his mother like a 5-year-old every month? Her visits amounted to a prayer, a few minutes for a lesson, then essentially an hour or more of intense, personal tutoring of my English assignments. At 15, I couldn't believe my incredible bad luck having my English teacher double as my mother's visiting teacher.

When it occurred to Mrs. Nielsen that no one in my family had ever read the classics, she brought to my home the works of Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, Dickinson and others. She didn't just drop them off.

Over three years of high school English, I vividly remember reading and discussing with her George Orwell's "1984," Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Mart Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn," Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" and "A Christmas Carol," Shakespeare's "Othello" and Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird." There were others, but I remember those specifically because I still have the book reports with all of Mrs. Nielsen's red markings.

As my senior year approached, she came one night to visit Mom and brought a stack of my papers. She fanned them out on our table and congratulated me on my improvement. Then she invited me to apply for a position on the school newspaper staff, for which she served as the faculty advisor.

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