Not in Vain


Kay Harper 


© Copyright 2016 by Kay Harper

Runner-Up--2016 Biographical Nonfiction


Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash.

She was standing at attention beside her ancient metal desk, pointer in hand as we trooped in for first period class. Poised to pounce on her biggest chatterbox, she gave me one of her glaring looks and snipped, “It’s too early to be hearing you, Missy. Close your mouth.”

Miss Olsen spent the majority of her time torturing us with American History, but still had time to call me out with her Missy stuff. She would shoot off that nickname like it was a bullet—designed to stop me dead in my tracks. When it didn’t, it infuriated her. Oh, she was a sniper alright. “Oh, I see you’re talking again, Missy. Why am I not surprised?”

Her students would later discover she had only been in her early 50s at that time, but her gravelly voice, cat-eye glasses that lived on the tip of her nose and pudgy, slow moving body made us think she must be 70 or more.

We hadn’t even made it to in our seats when she started twirling her stick and, pointing to us, one by one, as she barked out the names of people and events during the Revolutionary War. “George Washington, Valley Forge, Patrick Henry, the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” If anyone missed giving her a satisfactory answer, they would be writing a paragraph about it.

She was pacing in front as she chirped, “Our country was founded by a small group of brave men who had an excellent idea—democracy. Your test is tomorrow. Let’s see what you know.

Now, we are moving on to a later war that was fought by Americans, against Americans, on American soil. Can anyone tell me the name of it?”

My hand shot up. I’d better get some brownie points in, I thought.

Yes?” she said as she wormed her way over to my desk.

I stood up and stared straight ahead, “It was the Civil War,” I shouted, like she was my drill sergeant, “Also known as the War Between the States—the north and south. I’d better add the dates. That’ll get her going! It was fought between 1861 and 1865.”

Well done, Missy,” she shouted back trying to hide a satisfied smile.

Then, she launched into Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech, The Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago…” Her voice droned on to the end. “During the course of our study of the Civil War, you will be required to learn and RECITE The Gettysburg Address. I suggest you take some time over the weekend to begin learning it.” Our groans were drowned out by the bell.

We filed out in the required orderly fashion, row by row, and since my desk was on the far side of hers (an attempt to monitor my behavior) I was always the last to leave. When I reached the hallway I happened to look back as Miss Olsen took hold of and glanced lovingly at the large American flag that hung beside her desk.


Miss Olsen’s two-story brick house, the only home she’d ever known, stood beside a row of cavernous houses along a once-bustling, now deserted street. A dilapidated swing occupied one side of the paint-chipped porch, barely-alive plants the other.

When I reached up to knock on her door, it opened slowly. There stood a decidedly older Miss Olsen in one of her signature floral dresses, looking as if she’d just come from school. “My goodness,” she said with a slight smile. “What a surprise! How long has it been?” She motioned for me to come inside.

Twenty years!” I stepped across the threshold. That big flag from long ago now hung on the wall of her foyer. Beyond that, the living room was occupied by several large tables of miniature displays depicting various Civil War battles.

My hobby,” she explained. “Every old-maid school teacher I ever met has had one. Remember Miss Farris?” I nodded, recalling my 7th grade math teacher. “She grew orchids. Miss Lella? Painted watercolors. Me, well, as you may remember, my passion was and still is the Civil War. She shared the particulars of each battle with me like it was 1968 all over again.

Then she turned, and I followed her into the kitchen. “Lemonade and cookies…just baked?”

Yes!” I said, a bit overwhelmed by her hospitality.

We sat at her kitchen table that overlooked her huge, overrun backyard. “I’m not much for outside work as you can see.” We munched happily on the cookies and made small talk, but I had come with a mission, and was determined to see it through.

Miss Olsen, I came here today to thank you.” She couldn’t hide her surprise. “I know we went around and around when I was in your class, but thanks to you I know American History, and I understand and am grateful for the rich heritage that has made America the greatest nation on earth.

My appreciation for our country is directly related to what and how you taught me during my sophomore year of high school. I am continually amazed by how much I retained from your class.

I know I was a handful back then, and I apologize for all the times I disrupted your class, but I came here today to tell you that even though all the evidence may have pointed against it back then, you did get through to me, so thank you. And if it’s any consolation I didn’t single you out. I talked too much in every class.”

She chuckled then said, “Oh my,” as she reached up to wipe a tear. “I always wondered about you. You were such a bright student, I remember, but it seemed like you were in another world half the time. Thank you for coming by to let me know I didn’t teach you in vain.”

Before I go, I have a request.” She gave me a puzzled look. “Would you do me the honor of reciting The Gettysburg Address with me? I still remember it after all these years, and I know YOU do.”

Oh, I’d be delighted to,” she beamed as she took me to the foyer, gathered one corner of the big flag in her hand and invited me to hold the other. Together, we stood at attention, staring at the flag as if time had reserved this sacred moment for us, a hymn of praise to the freedom those stars and stripes represented.

We began softly, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Our volume began to increase, “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…”

Miss Olsen and I lifted our voices in a bold declaration, “…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We were silent for a full minute afterwards, then I thanked Miss Olsen once more, and slipped out the door leaving her still holding the flag—her devotion to America still constant after all these years.

Of all the teachers I’ve had, Miss Olsen left the greatest impression. In spite of my scrambled teenage self and her no-nonsense veneer, she imparted her knowledge of our country and its history to me. And just as Abraham Lincoln resolved “that these (Civil War) dead shall not have died in vain,” I, too, affirm, “Miss Olsen, you taught me well. Your effort was not in vain.”


 Miss Olsen is gone now. But every now and then I think I hear a slight echo from Heaven as she meets with the Rushmore Four—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and her most beloved, Abraham Lincoln.

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