In 1963, I was in third grade at Wilson Elementary School in the tiny South Dakota town of Huron. My classroom had green chalkboards, and I could always smell the chalk dust. The portraits of white male presidents surrounded the room; no wonder we grew up with the idea that only white men could be the President of the United States. I could walk to school from my home.
“Ellen, your artwork is on the table next to the door. Take it home with you,” Miss Erickson says.
“No, I’ll leave it here,” I say.
“Why don’t you take it home?” Miss Erickson asks.
I shrug my shoulders; I blush. “My mom throws it away.” Miss Erickson hid her shock.
Sonja Erickson was a Nordic Viking Goddess. Tall and blonde, she emanated warmth. Before her, I was an underachiever at school. My parents had concerns that I might be “slow.” When I met Miss Erickson, she looked at me and said, “I bet you’re above average, aren’t you, Ellen?” She talked to me differently than any other grown-up I’d known. She looked straight at me, and I felt seen for the first time in my short life. I liked that. From that day forward, I made my life about living up to Miss Erickson’s estimation of me, which continues to this day.
One day, I got called to the principal’s office. I reviewed in my tow-headed noggin what I might have done. Nothing, it turns out. The principal simply wanted to congratulate me on my last report card. Up to that point, the cards had been a constant litany of “below average” and “needs improvement.” I got called out for talking to other kids too much. Now my card said I was a star pupil!
My best friend in grade school, Jane Baum, told me years later that Sonja had asked the principal to call me out of the room because Miss Erickson wanted to talk to the class without me. “When you snort and make fun of Ellen’s last name, it hurts her feelings. She doesn’t show it, but she cries. Please don’t do that.” I came back to the class, and everyone stared straight ahead. I never heard another “Snorty, snorty, pig, pig, pig!” taunt again on her watch.
Sonja married Jim Staley that school year, and I was invited to their wedding. Their daughter, Wendy Colbert, told me Jim proposed to Sonja after Kennedy’s assassination. We were a nation mired in profound heartache. Kennedy’s murder was the first adult news I remember hearing. Their wedding was the first wedding invitation of my life. We all needed an event that celebrated living. I again appreciated this Goddess, who came into my life right when I needed her most.
I have carried Sonja in my heart ever since third grade. She’s in the acknowledgments of my book, in my play, “Now That She’s Gone” and in the credits of my documentary. She impacted me in so many ways. When I meet or teach children, I make sure I don’t speak down to them and I treat them like real people. Many people in my parents’ generation unconsciously put kids in “seen but not heard” mode, which is fundamentally dehumanizing. My folks didn’t know better. Because I had Sonja in my life, I know what a profound difference one adult can make to a short person.
Years ago, I participated in a Landmark Worldwide class called “The Wisdom Course,” which consists of five weekends spread over a year. The focus was on generating fun, grace, and ease as adults. One of the topics was our often unexamined relationships with art. For example, we explored whether an adult had told us not to sing so loud or complimented our elephant artwork when it was actually a tractor. The result? Our young self decided that we were no good at music or art from then on. I hadn’t remembered that my mother would take one look at my art and then throw it in the trash. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body; she merely hated clutter and didn’t “grok” how much it hurt me. She would take one look at my art, appreciate it, and then out it went.
In timing that defies logic, in 1993, I was between weekends of the Wisdom Course. I went to my mailbox and pulled out a manila envelope from Sonja Staley, whom I had stayed in touch with ever since my school days. Inside, I discovered my art that Sonja had saved for thirty years. There was also a terrible poem in my raggedy yet earnest cursive writing. I cried. Who does something like that? Sonja Erickson Staley, that’s who.
When I discovered she had died this Thanksgiving, I cried again. I’m going to her memorial in Edmonds, Washington, in January. Thank you, Sonja; I love you. You changed my life.
5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, please attend a free, staged reading of my award-winning solo show, “Now That She’s Gone,” at All Saints Episcopal of Pasadena. It’s an encore, as many people wanted to see it. The performance will be followed by a reception.
Ellen Snortland has written this column for decades and also teaches creative writing. She can be reached at: email@example.com. Her award-winning film “Beauty Bites Beast” is available for download or streaming at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/beautybitesbeast