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.
I shook my head and told her "Thanks, but no thanks." Mrs. Nielsen simply smiled at me but turned to my mother and said, "Ruby, Vai is good enough to be on my newspaper staff. If he applies, it will improve his chances of getting into the best schools who are already recruiting him."
That closed the deal.
Our ace reporter on the Jackrabbit Newspaper staff was a young man who transferred from the Midwest during our senior year named Michael De Groote.
Michael was everything I wasn't — smart, sophisticated, well-traveled, cultured and unathletic. He was in the drama club, very witty but nerdy.
After high school, De Groote joined the Mormon Church and after graduating from Arizona State was accepted to BYU's Law School, where he earned a J.D. in the mid-'90s. He's been a reporter for the Deseret News since 2008.
Like Michael De Groote and scores of Mrs. Nielsen's Mesa High journalism students, I, too, ended up in the Fourth Estate.
From time to time, I often wondered what became of Mrs. Barbara Nielsen.
Was she still alive? Is she still teaching? Is she still in Mesa? Through the same sources that led me to my first home teaching companion, Marty Klein, I found Barbara Nielsen. Only, she wasn't Barbara Nielsen anymore. For more than 20 years, she's been Barbara Nielsen Dowell.
As fate would have it, her husband, Vic, died in 1985 about the same time her college roommate Ruth passed away. Ruth and her husband, Emery, were dear college friends, often double dating with Vic and Barbara as poor college students. Emery, called "Soap" by his friends, and Vic were on ASU's yearbook staff their senior year, and majoring in journalism was what brought them all together.
It just seemed natural for Soap and Barbara to reach out to each other after their spouses' passing, and soon they were married themselves.
Soap and Ruth lived in California, while Vic and Barbara raised their family in Mesa.
As a new couple, Soap and Barbara decided to keep both homes and given their age, they wintered in Mesa and summered in Sacramento.
It's been a good life.
I reached Barbara by email and she was ecstatic that I had found her. In March, my wife and I flew to Arizona to see her. Soap happened to be in Sacramento getting their taxes prepared, so I missed him.
She invited her daughter and her brother and his wife, who coincidentally served in the England London Mission with our youngest son, to join us the evening we visited.
I recounted for Barbara all the stories that I remembered and we laughed till it hurt. Now in her mid-'80s, I was so impressed with her lucidity, wit and charm. But that's almost what I expected of a woman who taught English, journalism and humanities for nearly three decades.
She told us that after graduating from Mesa High in 1944, she came to Provo and enrolled at BYU. Following her sophomore year, however, she returned to Mesa to work and help pay to keep her younger brother on his mission in Hawaii. Making such sacrifices was a part of being a member of The Greatest Generation. Since she was home, she enrolled at ASU, where she met her husband and earned her degree. Along the way, they had five children and she managed to teach them all at some point during their high school years.
At evening's end, I knelt at her feet and cried on her lap, thanking her for the way she prepared me for my profession and for my life.
It was as if God placed her there for the precise moment that I needed her.
Like an angel.