Columnist reflects on her time in English teacher Nancy Volksen’s class and her impact on students’ lives at UAHS.
By Hallie Underwood, ’20.
I have always been the English nerd that I am today. I have always been called the ‘teacher’s pet’ in my Language Arts classrooms for writing extra essays or sticking behind after class to talk about Shakespeare. English classes are often the part of my school day where I can leave all my worries at the door and step into the worlds of Ernest Hemingway or Joan Didion or Harper Lee.
The first day of junior year, I sat near the front of my IB English Language and Literature class with a couple of friends, some I hadn’t seen since the end of the school year. Ms. Volksen came in with a smile, surveying her new students. I can say we were all taken aback by how eloquently she spoke. We latched on to her every word, suddenly being taken from the squeaky classroom desks to a place we’d never imagined. She said words like ‘paradigm’ in casual conversation while we spoke in ‘literally’ and ‘like,’ but she never discounted us. Even when we came in flustered over a test, she would stand behind her lectern and ask us to take an “oxygen snack.” We’d quiet and take in simultaneous deep breaths.
While Ms. Volksen stood at the classroom’s lectern to speak to us at the beginning of each period, she gifted the space to us. At first, reading our essays to the class was unfavorable, and when she asked us to come prepared to share an essay describing our summer reading experience, we each felt our stomach drop. Maybe our hands shook and our backs tensed the first couple of times, but I saw with each round of essays we grew closer than any other class we sat through. We laughed together, cried together, and often the squeaky classroom desks turned to places of ease because whether we spoke or sat in silence, we were all people and we were together.
Perhaps the most explicit example of togetherness was when we brought our feelings to paper in an essay about the “human chorus.” I wrote my human chorus essay in a hospital gown on a hospital bed, writing to ease a little bit of anxiety after talking to doctors and nurses and psychiatrists. I turned my human chorus essay in a couple of days late because I was in the hospital after a suicide attempt. In no other classroom would I have felt comfortable standing up and telling my story with depression. But Ms. Volksen offered a comforting smile. Teary-eyed, we hugged, and I felt okay.
And I’m not the only student who feels love from Ms. Volksen and the community she creates each year. She has allowed her students to be vulnerable, to challenge ourselves and our beliefs, to listen to others and to find peace with ourselves. She cares so deeply for us and has given her students the gift of exploration in a place in our lives where it is needed.
When Ms. Volksen told us she wouldn’t be returning to teach at UAHS next year, she didn’t offer us any explanation as to where she’d be when summer drew to a close. “It just feels right,” she told us.
Ms. Volksen cares so much for knowledge, she’s decided to go learn some more. And although leaving us is heartbreaking for everyone, she has taught me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned: trust yourself.
Maybe this time next year, Ms. Volksen will find herself with flip flops in her hands, staring out at the roar of the ocean. She may find herself volunteering for a non-profit, or walking the streets of a newfound town, searching for inspiration for a new novel. Maybe she’ll be lecturing at Harvard. Wherever life takes her, I know she will be doing something worthwhile, because she is always pursuing something that she feels content with. It’s really all that matters, doing something with your life that you feel content with. Thank you, Ms. Volksen, for your incredible impact on us. We can’t wait to see where you go.