Tuesday, January 17, 2012


                                 1936-- 2012
            she lived and loved in spite of everything
                                 January 9, 2012

   That early September day of 1950, in Powell Wyoming, on that day when I was to begin the life of a teacher: it went like this:
   I walked into the room, tenth grade English, looked about me, and there she was, half way back on my right, in the second to the window row of desks.

   She sat there, fifteen years old, sullen, angry, dangerous, ready to take my fool head off, or so it seemed. I remember it clearly: there she was Kay Lohrenz who was to be “my first true student”.  She, the one kid, present in that first class, who would, by virtue of her talent and her anguish, lay claim on me and be the founder of my teaching career.
   The class hour ended. I had said whatever it was I wanted to say by way of introduction, and the kids filed out, Kay Lohrenz brushing past me at the door, registering nothing but an active animosity. I didn’t know what to think.
    The class next day was like the first. The kids, willing enough and interesting in their own way. But Kay, she sat there still as though to say, “I hate your guts”.
     On the way out, however, as she powered her way past me with the rest, she thrust into my hand three pages of notebook paper folded in fourths-- without a word or even a glance.
    And so it began, the daily ritual. She would sit through class never saying a word, just being her insolent self, until, as she left, there were those pages of her writing, folded in fourths, on lined paper. There was both verse and prose, and sometimes a combination of the two. It was all heated, emotional, often angry stuff from a person trying to get a foothold in a world she felt was rotten and ugly. Much of the writing was beautiful.
   Papers each day, papers that I would in the evening write comments on and hand her back. I thought I had a genius on my hands. I felt called upon. Like a real teacher..
    I asked if I could keep some of her papers. She was willing, and I still have them.
    Her other teachers didn’t know what to make of her, as she was totally unresponsive with them.  I think they feared her, what she might do….
    All the while she was beginning to trust me just a little. But she remained wary, careful, ready to turn and run. Eventually though she even would say a few words to me and I to her. I think she thought of me as, in a way, her intellectual property.
    She addressed me as “Wickstrom”. Never Mister. Never now as “Gordon”. 
Still, only to this her dying day, I was “Wickstrom”.
    She wrote and wrote and wrote, some of it struggling, but a lot of it marvelous. She had a genuine and profound gift for language and the human  heart-- and its suffering.
    Her mother’s death was terrible for her. I got a lot about that, indirectly in her daily pieces of writing.
    She demanded that I understand, but yet, I always felt that she knew my limitations and how incomplete I really was. I think she feared that I might be just another phony after all. And I worried that she might be right…. Still I felt that we had become strange and special friends. She was my “discovery” and became my protégé.
    All those plays I directed. I hoped each time that she might say something complimentary about them in something she wrote, that she might approve.
However, never a word-- not until her sister Jean played Mrs. Zero in our production of Elmer Rice’s THE ADDING MACHINE. Kay was glad that Jean got the big part and was successful in it.
   You see, It was my lot in life to teach many kids who were smarter and deeper than I. I knew it and accepted it. I had been taught how to take it right off the bat by Kay Lohrenz, soon to become Kay Christopherson. Our worlds then drifted apart. She and Carl were married and moved away, eventually for her to die today  in Shoshoni, Wyoming.
   The years passed.
   I was in my professorship at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when one evening at dinner time the phone rang and this voice said, “You may not remember me, but….” Not remember  Kay Lohrenz !! How could I forget her of all people. It was thrilling for me to be remembered in this way. We talked and talked and began a correspondence in which over the years we wrote and wrote until today when she died. Which is what we all get and all  we get: we die.
   Kay was an immensely gifted woman, a woman of genius at taking life on the chin, thinking about it, and finding powerful words for it.  She led a big life, heroic in  its way, and she found immense resources of love in the cruelties of her obscurity. I thought she could have a profession as a writer, a poet, but hers was not the right temperament for the politics of the profession.  By the way, I felt that she was, in our late years, disdainful of my liberal politics as I regretted her conservative variety. But we forgave  each other.
    Had it not been for her impact on my teaching life-- and now late as a writer-- had it not been for the tremendous life she lived in words… well I don’t know  what would have become of us.
    She was a signal woman of the toughest West. She knew it, lived it, and loved it.  Entirely.
    She was the real stuff where the rest of us only work at it. I can imagine her out there somewhere in the great emptiness, still making sentences to try to cope with this brutal, terrible life of ours. Me?  I must linger a while in order to write this about her-- and others. Would that she could read it! She brought her suffering to me, her teacher and friend, as a gift.  I hope to remain always her


Liz said...

"still making sentences to try to cope with this brutal, terrible life of ours"

This is so beautiful. Thank you.

JKP said...

Yes - I know now why you and mom were such close friends.
Thank you,
Joni Kay Christopherson Prymek

auntg said...

Oh my, how wonderfully stated. Thank you, Kay's friend in Missouri

Rykki Neale said...

Thank you for sharing this. I knew Kay in Shoshoni (where I grew up and went to high school), but I did not know she was a writer. This is a beautiful memorial.

info4beer said...

I love my auntie dearly, as well, she still lives within my thoughts and I feel her smile on my soul. She impacted us all, justly, with love and with grace in her words.

Gary said...

With a catch in my throat, I type: I'm glad you knew her, Gordon, because I got to read this.

Bob's in the Kitchen said...


Thank you for being such a good friend. You meant a great deal to my mother.


Post a Comment