Last Saturday was the service for my friend, Shirley. I finally arrive at this to share as a tribute while a Power Point presentation of the plays we directed played in the background.
Shirley Grabner: Teacher. Advocate, Mentor, and Friend
In 1987, this person with an infectious laugh, twinkling blue eyes and calm disposition began subbing at Silver Star. Her name was Shirley and her magical way with students drew notice so she wasn’t a substitute for long. Thankfully, she landed at Silver Star.
Shirley made learning fun and engaging for students. Lessons such as Kid Town and the Vancouver Cultural Parade continue to be in the hearts of her former students.
I recently came across a copy of a letter that a fifth grader wrote to Shirley remembering her infinite number of “Freddie” stories (Freddie was her brother) and her impact on her life.
Advocate and Mentor:
Shirley started the after school drama club in 1998 or 1999. She didn’t just establish an elementary drama program; she created a place for all students; both the ones for which school came easy and for those who may have felt a bit disenfranchised. It was an open, caring place to be.
In 2000 and 2001, Shirley along with Jana Hart, the music teacher, directed students in “The Music Man” and “Annie.” There was close to seventy-five students on and off stage and I became an assistant.
The musicals were fun but costly and we weren’t allowed to videotape. Shirley wanted more opportunities to showcase Silver Star students so we began writing and producing our own plays from traditional tales. Through these plays we focused on universal themes such as the Golden Rule, taking care of the planet, harming no living things, and understanding one another.
Another Shirley gift was her belief in finding the goodness and strengths of everyone. The drama club was open to all. Many times students who, shall we say posed classroom challenges or were animated but not the strongest readers, tried out. These were the students who learned by doing. Shirley welcomed everyone. She believed in, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”
Shirley directed with a loving touch; she gently reminded students that the audience was more interested in seeing your face and not your backside. I now find myself quoting Shirley, “How you practice is how you perform.” And we had at least one practice that had everyone in stitches because of some mishap. And on performance day, students could count on looking just below the stage, Shirley would be there to prompt them or she would smile at them for encouragement.
In 2004, when tragedy hit Silver Star with the death of her student, Johnny Streeter, Shirley was there for all of us. It would have been easy to cancel the play, Mowgli, Boy of the Jungle. Our grief was so great and Shirley was a rock for her students. But Shirley encouraged us to continue, after all Johnny was as spirited as Mowgli. It was our healing place after school. I envision that Johnny was one of the first people to greet Shirley when her spirit left her earthly vessel.
Students often returned after leaving Silver Star to help with the plays. Shirley mentored them in props, lighting, and some assistant directing. Many of these students stayed involved in drama throughout high school.
After Shirley retired, I considered not doing the plays anymore. It wouldn’t be the same. In fact, I did a reader’s theater in 2011 and it didn’t go over very well. Her mentorship in this area made me realize how needed this outlet is for our students. I strive to lead in the same manner as Shirley: unconditional, understanding and with humor.
Through Shirley’s unconditional love, understanding, and listening we have all grown. Our life journey takes us to high peaks and deep valleys. Shirley was a person I knew would be there to walk with me on my path and listen. She listened with an open heart. I think most of our staff knew this about Shirley.
Shirley was one of the first people I told about my idea for a middle grade novel. She mentored and encouraged me. She was writing a book as well so we often checked in with each other about the progress of our writing. Hopefully, there will be a way to see her work published.
One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life” and I know Shirley had a wonderful life. We have one last thing to do for Shirley. As Zuzu says in the movie, “… every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” Let’s give Shirley her wings (although I am sure she probably has them) by ringing your bell.
I love you, Shirley. Your were like the older sister I always wanted. I know that you will be around.
My husband and I handed out jingle bells to ring for the last part. But as I stifled the urge to cry when speaking, I ended up with a massive headache that is just now subsiding. Remember to cry, don’t stifle your emotions.
This has been a harder month than I have acknowledged. It’s evidence that it’s the 17th of December and I don’t have Christmas up. I am thankful for Two Writing Teachers providing a place to share on weekly slices.