Clippings: ‘Miss Kolb’ — a teacher for a lifetime

When retiring Bristol Elementary School teacher Sandy Haddock told me about how she often makes mistakes — deliberately — so that students will catch her out and learn for themselves how essential mistakes are to learning, I could think of only one person.
Emma Kolb. 
That’s Miss Kolb to me — forever and eternally, even in my memory (oh, and I’ve just stopped slumping in my chair in front of this computer and am trying to sit ramrod straight, just thinking about her).
Miss Kolb stood six feet tall. She wore heavy-framed, black-rimmed mannish glasses and a man’s watch. She wore her dark brown hair twisted tight to her scalp in two braids, pinned up high. And —  like a fair number of folks in the small town in western Kansas where I attended grade school in the 1960s and ’70s, descendants of the northern European immigrants who brought Turkey Red hard winter wheat to farm the plains — she spoke with something of a German accent, her voice clipped and precise, her s’s sibilant.
To my younger self — meaning before I reached the heights of maturity and worldliness that constituted sixth grade — I knew Miss Kolb as the terror-inspiring disciplinarian’s disciplinarian of Lincoln Elementary.
She was so tall. She was so strict. Those brown eyes could pierce you, basilisk like, with just one look. That strong beak of a nose could smell out even the smallest infraction.
I was sure my best friend, Brenda Kessler, had her facts mixed up when she told me that Miss Kolb was “really nice.”
How could she even think such a thing? Miss Kolb was scary. But … Brenda’s mom did know a lot. She was our school music teacher, played the piano beautifully, cooked a mean, farm-style chicken fricassee and got her hair cut right across the street from Fort Hays State College (which meant that Brenda and I had the run of the college museum’s shrunken heads, giant fish within a fish fossil, and bafflingly tiny Chinese shoes).
Still, despite Brenda’s assertions to the contrary, I stood my ground. How on earth could Miss Kolb be “really nice” when I knew she was terrifying?
Then I landed Miss Kolb as my sixth-grade teacher and learned the real truth.
Emma Kolb was a genius of a teacher. Yes, she was strict. Yes, she was very tall. Yes, she could look scary (especially if you were being a knucklehead and certainly if there was even the least whiff of bullying). But she was compassionate, kind and thoughtful. She was inventive in the classroom. She loved us and she wanted us to learn. And she remains in my heart — despite a Phi Beta Kappa B.A. from a liberal arts college renowned for its teaching, despite two graduate degrees at wildly different institutions — as the best teacher I’ve ever known.
Great teachers, I think, do two things, one expanding out and the other drilling in. They inspire you to learn new things, thus expanding your knowledge base, your approach to the world, your horizons. And they also see you so that you can better see yourself. They see your potential. They see strengths you don’t know you have and build confidence out of helping you better appreciate yourself.
Especially when you most need it.
In sixth grade, the world looked pretty good. After all, one of my older brothers had the lead in the high school musical. What could be cooler than that? We had an incredible school orchestra conductor we knew as “Mean Dean Angeles,” who had us sawing away furiously at a baby version of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (his contrastingly sweet wife, who we called “Angel Face,” taught fourth grade), I could run around town after school on my bike with my great gang of girlfriends, hanging out and making up low-key fun like sliding down the incline of an abandoned slate factory or pulling field turnips out of a muddy field during a torrential downpour or just going to the Dairy Queen.
But it was also the year my older sister ran away from home to California, got caught shoplifting, put into juvenile custody and then shipped off to a girls’ home in Texas run by a religious fanatic so abusive and loathsome that even the state of Texas finally shut him down.
So, looked at from an adult perspective, it’s unlikely that that year was all sunshine. And my adult self wonders if Miss Kolb didn’t look out for me in ways I never even realized.
She certainly encouraged me in ways that made that year wonderful and exciting. Among my favorite projects, we created our own staged adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child,” with funny characters and funny voices and choral readings and a tremendous tug of war when the wily crocodile grabs the Elephant Child’s nose. And I got to be the narrator.
I can still recite almost every word. “In the High and Far-Off Time, the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk …”
Miss Kolb really did make deliberate mistakes in math and then encouraged us — exhorting us with that Germanic accent — to think for ourselves and catch her out. She once described to Brenda and me after school (both teachers’ kids, we had the run of the building) how she started out as a strict disciplinarian, concerned that the desks be in perfectly straight rows, but now her vision was to blow out the walls, put in a wall-size glass window and let those of us who were ready go learn independently, surrounded by big tables and a lot of books. She’d be watching us, and she could just wave through the glass wall.
At the end of the school year, we expressed our appreciation by buying for her that thing we knew she most desired: an ironing board. Brenda’s mom, again, gave us the inside scoop. She knew Miss Kolb wanted a new ironing board, so we thought we’d surprise her. We were incredibly proud of the way we wrapped the awkward thing in brown paper and painted it all over with pink flowers. And when we brought it out at the school assembly she said, “What is that?! Is it a surfboard?!?”
To our 11-year-old eyes she looked pretty pleased. And we felt proud that we had given her something useful. Now I wonder, couldn’t we have instead chipped in our pennies for a trip to Tahiti? Some relaxing beach somewhere? Something more exotic or frivolous?
But she probably wouldn’t have wanted it. A descendant of pioneers who’d braved locusts and sod houses and hot summers and blinding blizzards, work and service were the rod and staff that comforted her, even long after her ostensible retirement.
According to an article in the Hays (Kan.)Daily News from 10 years ago, Miss Kolb retired from teaching in 1984, after 47 years of service. Then for the next 22 years she volunteered at Lincoln Elementary — every day — until she finally retired from retiring, close to her 88th birthday.
So extraordinary were her 69 years of service, that Kansas legislator Jerry Moran made a speech in the U.S. House of Representatives in honor of her passion for education and her dedication to the school and its students.
Said Moran, “The length of her tenure may only be over-shadowed by the amount of joy she gave to those she worked with and worked for.”
Oh, and at 88, being interviewed for her retirement party, Miss Kolb let the journalist know “I still clean my own house and wash and iron. When you do all that, as slow as I am, it keeps you busy.”
Some crazy part of me wants to imagine she’s still ironing with that same board — likely an impossible hope as she approaches 98. That as she runs that iron back and forth, ironing some crisp pleat with fierce precision, she feels that board supporting her and knows that the love she gave to so many is still sustaining her.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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