I lost both parents to what turned out to be terminal cancer diagnoses. The slowly debilitating nature of the disease is sometimes easier for the survivors than a sudden death would have been, because it gives you a chance to offer some succor, to do something useful, to say a proper goodbye. But for sick loved ones themselves, the gradual deterioration is far from what anyone would have wanted or expected. From the inability to enjoy food, to the waning of interest in favorite leisure activities, to the discomfort the sickness itself brings, these are unanticipated conundrums of fate.
One of my most indefatigable friends has been diagnosed with seemingly incurable cancer. Her doctors have suggested six months. At my age, I’ve lost some friends and acquaintances, and seen plenty of friends go through the ravages of cancer, strokes and heart problems, but this is the first time a best friend of mine has been confronted with such a trial. It is on my mind 24-7, and I seek ways to make her as comfortable, cheerful and challenged as possible. I began to reflect on our times together over the past eleven years, and began to transcribe some life perspectives of my friend, an exacting writer, business person and English teacher.
So I sit with my friend, Kari Fretham, and take notes as I interview her in an attempt to capture some of the most unique, compelling and inspirational aspects of her life. Kari is a person who has been intimate with Culver City for the past 17 years as an 8th grade English teacher to scores of Culver City Unified middle and high school students. As is the wont of an English teacher, we started with a quote. I quote myself, “I’ve never met a person who explained a thing as well as Kari Fretham.” Here’s what she shared:
“I can put myself into someone’s position really easily. Whenever I wanted to explain something, I could always figure out when they weren’t understanding. It had something to do with the explaining itself, and the modality (visual, tactile, etc.)
“I could put myself into a student’s position, and understand where the confusion might be. The reason this skill developed was my special ed background. I was taught a thing in 1970’s, when I was in my 20’s. It was called “errorless learning.” The point was that you taught just enough, and built a chain of understanding. There would be nothing you’d learned wrong, and nothing you’d confuse. You just went on to the next step. You were never anxious. The understanding had to do with the information being broken down. We did this with students who had significant learning handicaps. Like, teaching a student to how eat, how to turn when you said his name, or how to write her name. There was an idea to do it in an errorless learning chain. You could do forward or backwards chaining. This theory is still present in work with autism.
“It became a natural approach to life and learning for me. I came to believe that if you found a way to teach someone, that person is able to be taught. In this theory, the teacher holds all the responsibility, which us not always the most popular thing. But what it does, is give extreme hope to students.
“I have explained thousands of things to students with only blank sheet of paper and a pen. That paper became the white board. Drawings, numbered steps, arrows, would fill the paper to support verbal explanation. I always taught trying to come up with a way to get most of the students in the large group to understand. Of course, there would be some who, after the large group session, were still confused. If we couldn’t clear it up before or after class, or during breaks, I would have them schedule an appointment with me after school. There’s nothing of more importance to me than a student experiencing learning. In student letters at the end of the year, they would tell me they’d never met a teacher who cared so personally about their learning.”
We sat back and felt done with this one aspect of Kari’s teaching and personality, but, suddenly back in my former role as advocate for gifted students, I asked my favorite question, “what did you do with students who already knew the material?” Kari leaned back a little, surrendered a hand up and smiled, “I wasn’t as good at that; I was never the perfect teacher.”
But she really was, and is, the perfect teacher. To me, a perfect teacher is not about the subject they teach or the methods they use to teach, it’s about whether they are a person who genuinely cares about the people they serve, and believes in second, third, and even infinite chances.
Although our administration might have maintained that class assignments were done randomly, I think Kari’s approach to education is what landed her with the most difficult students that passed through my 6th and/or 7th grade English classes into her 8th. She was “that teacher” who always knew how best to handle academic or behavioral challenges in students. For a while, us newer teachers would refer to it as “WWKD (What Would Kari Do).” The English Department which, incidentally, Kari headed up for most of the ten years I was on the job, often collaborated across grades on struggling students. Kari would speak lovingly about the most infamous of them. She’d say a student’s name suffixed with a “bless-his-heart,” and proceed to tell us a story of the particular student’s success at writing a paragraph in her classroom.
Kari Fretham has a way of seeing and honoring the non-academic gifts in us all. When I’ve admired signs of book smarts in a person, even at the cost of social graces, Kari laughingly prefers more intuitive souls who, for example, can make a guitar sing the blues.
Editor’s Note – There will be more about Kari in upcoming columns.