Halene and I were eating lunch together, together for the last time as it turned out. “So, you remember that scene in Titanic where Jack sketches Rose lying nude on a couch?” Yes, I said. “Well, that was Dogie and me.” She was looking down at her salad and remembering her cowboy-painter husband who had died recently of Parkinson’s. She looked up at me. “We did a lot of that.”
I was a beginning teacher in 1976 when Halene came into my life. I’d had all my training and educational foundation classes, but was just eager not very disciplined, energetic but not methodical, passionate but not really sure of my teaching theory. Through the years that I was privileged to orbit Halene’s great star, I developed my own beliefs in the power of children’s learning abilities, with or without teachers. Her grounding helped me stay strong through the nine years that I homeschooled my sons. Her examples and wisdom guide my teaching life still.
She was a child of the depression from Ohio just like my mother. She’d even gone to the same small liberal arts college in Holmes County. Unlike my mother, however, Halene had left school early to enter a sanitarium because of tuberculosis. The daughter of a milliner and an iron miner, she’d then gone west and married a cowboy, moved to Wyoming during World War II where she cooked for the guards and the Germans in a prisoner of war camp, and then finished her education so she could teach elementary school.
We met at a school in Albuquerque, where she’d noticed my handwriting on some posters I’d put up for my classroom art show. She became my mentor, and took me into her family like a daughter. Even though I didn’t really need another mother, Halene shared my own interest in the development of young children, language acquisition, and teaching writing and the language arts. My mother had felt the call to teach teenagers. My mother met Halene once, and they shared stories of their mutual college music professors, the Depression, and Ohio winters.
In 1977 Halene and I took a road trip from Albuquerque to Grand Forks, North Dakota. When she drove, I worked on a large needlepoint tapestry of two Mexican musicians that still hangs in my bathroom today. The Piaget workshop was a week long, and we roomed together, took meals together, and discussed David Elkind’s lectures and theories on young children’s learning. On the way back, we stopped in Lusk, Wyoming, where her cousin ran a motel. I saw that even the biggest star can have complicated challenges with relatives.
Halene’s own family included three sons, so when I became pregnant with my third son, I called her and asked how I was going to manage. Her response was succinct, “Three words, Kathy: Macaroni and cheese.” I visited her little rambling adobe house in the north valley often to enjoy her good conversation and southwestern fusion cooking. She was getting used to using a microwave oven and told me she didn’t like the difficulty of getting everything the same temperature at the same time. Our meals with Dogie often ended with “tin roof” sundaes, a concoction of vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate sauce and Spanish peanuts that only midwesterners like my mom seemed to know.
The last time I visited, Halene was having trouble understanding the world. She wore an old stained blouse as she came out to greet me at the car, and I don’t think she was sure who I was most of the time. When we went out to lunch, however, the old Halene was in fine form as she mediated what she noticed as a little boy at a nearby table was trying to communicate with his parents. Even in her impaired state, her powers of observation and attention gave me new lessons to follow. And I felt again as I always had in her presence: included, valued, and inspired.