Her name was Fran …
And she allowed us to call her that instead of Mrs. Barnes. Encouraged it, even, especially those of us she circled around herself in her classes. We felt sophisticated; we badly wanted to feel sophisticated! I was one of her kids. And she was the best teacher I ever had – in high school, in college, ever.
She started a class called Intellectual History; a review of philosophy through the ages. Fran knew philosophy, grew up reading and discussing it. We couldn’t wait for that class to start; ‘Intellectual History’ sounded like a college class; it sounded grown up to our teenage ears. She taught us Socratic method, and then used it to enlighten us. ‘Int Hist’ was a months-long discussion of what life meant, what goodness was, and what it meant to consider other people deeply. The perfect class to launch all of us into college life; it made me a better thinker, it sharpened my politics. And it was a shared experience for us. In the hallways, on the buses, Fran’s kids looked each other right in the eyes, and said “I-Thou,” referencing Martin Buber’s description of higher order relationships. To me, it was shorthand for: “Aren’t we lucky, we’ve got this.” I’m sure everybody else just thought we were weird; that was OK with us. As the year closed on ‘Int Hist,’ we started to worry. We’d had no midterm, no real papers, our class was discussion. What will we be graded on? ‘Oh there will be a final,” she said. “What will we need to know?” we asked. “Everything,” she answered, with a smile. We studied like crazy.
On finals day, she’d arranged for all of us to be in her classroom for 2 hours. She walked in with a basket, with little folded papers inside. She sat on her desk – she was on it more than she was ever behind it – and reached in, and tossed a paper to each of us. We opened them. Each had the name of a philosopher. “GO!” she said, and smiled that wicked little smile of hers. For a few moments, we sat motionless, challenged, unsure. Then Richard jumped up and ran out of the room. He’d been given Thales (620 B.C.E. to 545 B.C.E.), who believed water was the nature of all things. Richard raced back in with a cup of water and hurled it into the center of the room, declaring “Here! For I have told you!” From there, it was pandemonium, half discourse and argument, half hilarious laughter as each of us found an equally theatrical way to demonstrate what our given philosopher took most seriously. We all got an A. She knew our grades when she walked in the room, she knew we’d absorbed it all. It was all we talked about even when we weren’t with her. She knew she’d gotten to us.
Fran also taught us books. I’m sure my English class with her had a name, but I always thought of it as “Books”. We spent an entire semester on one novel, James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. Dissected it, reassembled it, dived into every theme. It helped that Stephen Daedalus was young like we were, and the references to Greek mythology – which most of us studied with her in Intellectual History – were illuminating.
I don’t think I ever saw Fran Barnes Knorr in a dress. She wore pants. Most of our women teachers wore pencil skirts and moderate heels. Fran was comfortable clothing, flats, and short hair. She was built for work; there was nothing dainty about her. She showed up in our lives, lit us up and released us into the world better – so much better – than if we’d never known her. She was at once both demanding and forgiving. She made room for who we were when we walked into her life; she heard us out when life challenged our gawky, unformed lives, and she made sure we knew she had confidence in us that we could do anything.
Fran was also my director, in a theater program so ambitious and creatively run – mostly by her – that it had a statewide reputation. I was a big, gangly teenager utterly unconvinced I possessed any ability for anything, and fairly petrified to step out on a stage and audition for the famous Mrs. Barnes … before I knew her. Something came over me, and I belted out the signature anthem of a wise-assed New York City lady cab driver from Leonard Bernstein’s 1940s On the Town. It was sassy, confident and loud, all the things I wasn’t. I immediately reverted to gawky and terrified the moment I finished. There was silence … a beat … two beats. Then Fran, from way back in the auditorium: “Wow. Who is that?” Thus began 3 years of Fran Barnes coaxing the funny, sassy, confident me out of my big, gawky teenage shell. That was a gift; she gave that to me. I use the hell out of it.
One day she called a few of us, her kids, over to help her move – this was after I graduated. We packed things up, we laughed and told jokes, and basked in the feeling of inclusion in her life with Howard. She’d met this warm and intelligent man in the theater group she was in. We loved him, he was perfect for her. And were just knocked out she wanted us to know him too. That day, she surprised us by marrying Howard, at their home. David and I sang together to walk her down the aisle, really from the back of the house into the living room. What an honor.
Fran was the best teacher I ever had. If there’s any good about me, I can trace a lot of it to her challenges, her high expectations, her confidence, and above all her patience for my big, gawky teenage self. Fran and Howard, I will carry you forward however I can. You wonderful people.
Special note to regular Blue Jersey readers: You know Blue Jersey’s beat is Jersey politics and how national politics impacts this state. But you also know we advocate for public education, and for educators. Fran Barnes Knorr was not a NJ teacher. My high school years were in Michigan. But I’m writing this here because I hope if there are teachers who have been special to you that you tell them, before it’s too late and you can’t anymore. Fran Barnes Knorr, and my college professor father and education sociologist mother, are the reasons I advocate for public education.