I Owe It All to Mr. Courtney

Oh, the memories… We sat, we laughed, we reminisced. It wasn’t a class reunion, it was better. It was a small group. A somewhat spontaneous gathering. A mix of us that went to and graduated from high school together.

Stories came out. Laughter roared. I’m pretty sure the other people in the establishment were a little bit jealous. Curious faces questioned what all the laughter was about.

The music thumped in the background. Unforgettable bass thumping, bringing us all back twenty-plus years.

The conversations jumped back and forth from present to past. We talked about friends, classmates, teachers and students from other grades.

We reconnected on different levels; shared experiences and current views.

A conversation touched on teachers. And I stopped. We talked about a teacher. Mr. Courtney. I spoke up, very seriously I said, “I owe it all to Mr. Courtney. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.” Most didn’t hear me. One did.

Most people think of their senior year in high school as their glory days. I wish it were that way, but it wasn’t for me. My senior year was rough. For me it was the year of life lessons.

But before I go any further, let me explain a little about who I was in high school. I was shy. Didn’t talk to many people unless they talked to me first. I kept to myself. I was quiet, unless among friends. Growing up as an only child, or maybe just who I am, I was eager to please and set out not to disappoint my parents. I went to a private school, which I knew my parents made sacrifices for me to attend, so I didn’t want to disappoint them. I tried hard in school. I was a honor roll student, but not the top of my class like some of my friends. While it was a little frustrating at times, I was okay with that. I was proud of where I was. I was proud of my school. Proud of my education. While I tried to be athletic, it was clear early on, that it wasn’t my calling. Instead I opted for stuff that moved me. Primarily music. But music and band weren’t “cool” in my school and I played piano anyway, so band was pretty much out of the question. But I did love dance. I grew up with dance. I started at a young age and loved it, so I joined the dance line. It wasn’t really what I thought it would be, but some of my friends were there, so I had fun. In a way I think it was a way for me to come out of my shell even if it were just for a few minutes.

Then came my senior year. They dissolved the dance line. We were too “provocative”. The school wouldn’t support it. (I went to a private, Catholic school.) So I joined the Yearbook Committee and Golf Team. I still have not played a game of golf, but that’s another story. Cut to late winter/early spring of my senior year, everyone else is on a high. Instead, my Mom’s brother and sister, my Uncle and my Aunt, pass away within weeks of each other. I’m a mess. Growing up as an only child, my extended family was really important to me. My aunts and uncles were like surrogate parents and my cousins, like distant brothers and sisters. I loved them no differently. To lose two in such a short period of time was devastating.

Shortly thereafter I got Mono, and not a mild case, mind you. I would come home from school exhausted. I would plan on taking a nap before doing my homework but climbing the steps to my bedroom felt like climbing Mt. Everest. I would stop and rest… sleep… on each landing before finally making it to my room.

Needless to say, I would fall asleep doing my homework, I couldn’t stay awake to study for tests and reading a book for English class was totally out of the question.

Then test day came. I can’t even recall which book I was supposed to have read, all I can tell you was it was one of the classics. The exam was passed out and what normally felt like a piece of cake, felt like a horror film. I read the questions, one after another, flipping pages until I could find a question I was comfortable with. There weren’t any. It was an essay test. I had no chance in hell of even making “an educated guess” as to what the answer would be much less writing an essay about what happened and the meaning behind it. But sadly, where it would have really bothered me in the past, I thought, “I really don’t care. What does it matter anyway?”. I scratched in some answers and flipped over my test. I glanced around the room. A few heads popped up, quizzically looking in my direction. I knew they were questioning how I could finish so fast. They knew I either didn’t know what I was doing (in which case they were correct) or they felt intimidated thinking I’d brilliantly finished before them (in which case they were horribly incorrect).

I turned in my paper, walked out the door and didn’t think twice. I was pretty disconnected the next couple of weeks. Nothing really seemed to matter anymore. (Death will do that do you.) That continued until the day our tests were handed back in English. Our teacher, Mr. Courtney, always made a habit of passing exams back in grade order, commenting as he handed them back. If you were one of the prized students that meant he gave you accolades in the beginning. Mine was usually just behind those with accolades, but not in the disapproval group. That day, I was missed, or so I thought. He went through the accolades, through the average students and on to the disapprovals. “He must have missed mine.” I thought to myself. But he still had a couple in his hand. That could either be really good, as he occassionally called out the student(s) with a perfect score, or really bad. He called attention to a perfect score. “I can’t believe it!” I thought to myself, “I got a perfect score! And I didn’t even finish the book!”

Then he came down my aisle, looked me straight in the eye as he set my paper face-down on my desk and said, “Klingberg (my maiden name), I want to see you after class.” My stomach sunk. I felt all the blood in my body rush to my head as my face and neck flushed. I didn’t hear anything the rest of the class. I couldn’t listen. I couldn’t participate. I was paralysed. Humiliated and paralysed. But the rest of the class continued on as if nothing had happened. It was almost as if the rest of them knew my day was coming and it had finally come.

The bell rang. Class was dismissed. A few goodie-goodies stuck around to ask questions. I was silently begging and pleading them to leave. The tears were welling in my eyes and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold them in. The palms of my cold hands were clammy.

Finally, they were gone. Mr. Courtney, still not making eye contact or even acknowledging that I was still in the room, calmly walked over and closed his door. “Here it comes.” I thought. I don’t know what I thought was coming, but I was sure it wouldn’t be good.

He walked back to his desk, sat on the corner facing me and calmly said, “Klingberg, what the hell is going on with you?” I was shocked. “He said the “H” word! Can he do that?” I thought to myself. But then I regrouped, I got the point. Shock therapy. Fighting tears I explained that my Uncle and Aunt had passed away and I’ve had Mono. Surely he knew that. I’d had excused passes and he’d sent homework home. Homework I didn’t do. I thought for sure he would understand. I thought for sure he would listen and let me off the hook.

Instead he explained that he knew. And that he knew that most seniors were on the “senior slide”. They had already been accepted into college, there were just a couple of months left of school so they quit trying. I shook my head, no. But he already knew. “Klingberg, I know what you’re capable of. This isn’t it.” He explained that he understood what I was going through, that he was sorry for my loss, but that things happen in life and that you need to figure out how to pick yourself up and continue on. He said if I didn’t turn things around I would fail his class. He expected my grades to turn around by the next exam or I wouldn’t graduate. In my head I knew that meant I would go from being an Honor Roll student to failing my senior year. “You’re excused.” he said. “Are you freaking kidding me?!?” I thought to myself. “I hate you.” Devastated, I went to my locker. I grabbed by books, threw them in my backpack, slammed my locker shut and stormed out the door. I got in my car and left the school parking lot as quickly as possible. And then I sobbed all the way home.

That night I thought about it. Much as I didn’t want to admit it, I knew he was right. The funny thing is, I realized that my grades had slipped in all of my other classes too, but either the teachers didn’t notice, didn’t know me, or simply didn’t care. Mr. Courtney cared. I realized that night that Mr. Courtney was more than “just a teacher”. He really cared about his students. He cared about me and he had the guts to tell me to pull it together and move on. Mr. Courtney taught me a life lesson.

He taught me that no matter how tough life is, no matter what happens, no matter what blows you feel like you were dealt, you need to pick yourself up and continue on. He saw my potential when I didn’t. He helped me to see what I could do and what I could be and I will forever be indebted to him for that life lesson.

Tonight, when we sat around laughing and reminiscing, I remembered that I never did thank him for what he did for me. That day, Mr. Courtney gave me a gift. That day, Mr. Courtney taught me a life lesson I will never forget. That day, Mr. Courtney changed the way I saw myself and from that day forward, when I’ve had a hard day, a hard week or a hard year, I’ve practiced picking myself up and continuing on. I’ve practiced doing what I’m capable of even when I don’t think I am.

Twenty some-odd years later, I’m finally getting around to a thank you.

Dear Mr. Courtney,

Wherever you are, thank you. You may not remember that conversation, that day or even that year, but I do. And I appreciate your taking the time to pull me aside and let me know that I mattered enough not only for you to notice but for you to take me aside and talk to me. I appreciate your honesty and the lesson you taught me. Someday I hope to repay you, but even more, I hope in some way, over the years, you’ve felt my gratitude, because if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m forever indebted.

Thank you, Mr. Courtney.

Kate (Katie Klingberg) Clarity

8 Comments to “I Owe It All to Mr. Courtney”

  1. I think that many of us have stories that echo yours. As children or adolescents we could not possibly evaluate the impact a teacher or other adult will have on us. How lucky you are to have had Mr. Courtney. Speaking as a teacher, you also often don’t know what impact you have on your students, and all it takes is one coming back years later to let you know that makes it all worth it. Thanks for sharing this story.


  2. Kate,

    I echo the comment above. I would encourage you to track Mr. Courtney down and tell him to read this. I was given an opportunity at my parents funeral when a notably tough and demanding English teacher to all my siblings and who I haven’t seen since high school came through the receiving line at the wake. I thanked her for setting the bar high and demanding excellence from her students. It was a 15-20 second conversation and I could tell it meant a lot to her even 30 years later and I bet it would mean the world to Mr. Courtney as well!


  3. Mr. Moore was the name of my teacher who saved my life senior year. He was my calculus teacher and a fairly new teacher and he reached out when my world crashed down around me. I didn’t slip far, but he caught me and righted me. maybe I’ll try and find him as well….


  4. Kate,

    I wasn’t a huge fan of Mr. Courtney but I tolerated him. However, about eight years ago another classmate of ours sent him a really rude and obnoxious email and posted about it on Facebook. I was embarrassed for all of us, really.

    I hope you found him and send your email. He deserves better.


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