You Can't Teach a Fish How to Run-Tribute to a Teacher (Janet's Blog)

(02-12-2011) My dear friend Donna died last week. She was 72. She lived in Pierre, South Dakota. She was a force of nature…an actor, director, writer, community organizer and volunteer, feminist, facilitator, mediator, leader and much more. But, mostly and always, Donna was a teacher. It’s how she started her illustrious career. She spent years in the classroom where she made students feel special, especially those students who didn’t fit the small town norm. They were creative, they didn’t fit in, they were on the edge. Those were the kids to whom she felt connected. Those were the people all her life that she befriended and believed in.

She used the power of theatre to bring out the best in people and entire communities. After she left the classroom and moved into the Department of Education as Assistant Superintendent, she continued to capture young people by casting them in community theatre productions. If a production called for 10 children, she would cast 50. I thought she was nuts. In reality, she was brilliant. She used productions like “Fiddler on the Roof” to bring entire rural communities together on stage. One story has her stopping the car to ask some guy riding a bicycle if he’d like to be in the show she was directing because he “looked right.” This may not be the artistically correct thing to do, but for Donna, she needed a Rabbi and this guy fit the bill.

I can hear the gasps of horror from the theatre critics in the crowd, and admittedly, Donna’s community theatre productions weren’t bound for Broadway. But they were so critically important to towns of 15,000 or 3,500. She captured the imagination of entire communities for six weeks during rehearsals and her casts of 100 (or more) filled theatres with enthusiastic family, friends and neighbors. She was a pied piper and entire communities lined up. She was a teacher all her life. She cared about each person she met and was concerned that they were living up to their creative potential. And she knew that creative potential held positive futures for students who were a bit different. For many creative kids, isolated in rural South Dakota, Donna was a shining light, a glimmer of hope that their lives were worthy and that there was a place for them where they fit in.

Donna’s public Facebook page created after her death is over flowing with stories of past students and friends thanking her for caring about them. She embodied the very best of what teachers can do, especially teachers in the arts, for smart, creative kids. Thank God for good teachers and thank you God for the life of my friend, Donna. Here is a just one of those stories written by Tim Mikkels, a past student of Donna's who I've never met but with whom I certainly agree:

“Donna, or Mrs. Fjelsted to me, first told me to try out for the lead in our 6th grade play. No one ever asked me to do this before, most overlooked me, I was a shit. I went home that night and memorized all of my lines and got the lead role the next day. I’m sure I wasn’t very good, but the fact that a teacher actually showed an interest in me was amazing. There were only two or three teachers that ever did this…..Mrs. Castle, Mrs. Foster and Mrs. Fjelstad. Let’s face it, I wasn’t a great student, but thanks to these three teachers I felt I had a chance in life. More teachers should do this. We all learn differently. After all you can’t teach a fish how to run. Donna went on to show more interest in me over the years and had me try out and appear in a couple of plays for the Pierre Players. It’s a fact I was never gonna win an Oscar, but I went on to have a pretty good career in radio and mass media because Mrs. Fjelstad took an interest in me and saw some sort of potential when most didn’t. I will always be grateful to her for this and I was lucky to be able to personally thank her a year or so ago. She told me “ I made her a week.” I told here she made my life. May God bless my 6th grade homeroom teacher.”