We were nice girls from a little town in northern Wisconsin. My sister Holly was full of grace. She was helpful. Kind. Not an ounce of malice. She seemed to do everything right, but not because she was Little Miss Perfect. There was nothing artificial about her. I adored my older sister and looked up to her.
Holly never made waves. Didn’t kick up a fuss. She seemed to stay calm in all circumstances. I never thought of her as having true grit until 1962. She was a senior in high school and her biggest challenge was Mrs. Forsberg. This challenge set her up for a bigger challenge later on.
Nothing on the surface seemed to suggest her to be more than just a good person who was well liked, respected, and went about life without much resistance.
Irma Forsberg was another story. She was the high school English teacher and had been teaching a little less than forever. Irma was great – that was obvious. She was influential. Changed lives. Stood out. She was a wise, firm, formidable, tiny 5’2″ force not to be reckoned with but always worth listening to. What Mrs. Forsberg said, we did.
However, this is not a story about Irma’s greatness. It’s a simple story about how Holly’s deep inner core was formed when an unmovable greater force, no matter how unimportant or important, came along.
We worked hard in Mrs. Forsberg’s class but getting an “A” was not just dependent on grades. Irma (what we called her respectfully behind her back) also coached Forensics. And everyone who wanted an “A” had to enter the Wisconsin State Wide High School Public Speaking Contest. There were categories of drama or essays. This was fine with me – I was the more dramatic one and loved declaiming. But Holly hated it. Really, really hated it. Being conspicuous, standing on a stage, delivering a speech, was not her nature.
She entered the essay contest and was given a prepared speech to memorize called “Hasty Justice.” Being a good girl, she did everything she should – worked on it, practiced it, rehearsed it, and unexpectedly kept getting a First at every competition. She would have preferred to fail as quickly as possible, but she had too much integrity not to do her best. So she stuck it out – kept getting up and getting through.
She got the first at the local level, then two Regional competitions. She finally got the ultimate – a First at State. It seemed terrific to me, but she walked off the stage, turned to Mom and said, “I am never again, ever, going to say that essay again!” Mom agreed. She had done her part. Now it was over.
But Irma didn’t see it that way. After initial congratulations she had another plan: “Holly, all those who performed are going to give their speeches to the PTA next Monday night.” My heart sank. I felt real pain for Holly. My poor sister. But instead of complying, Holly gently said, “No, I’m never going to do that speech again.” Irma informed her, “Every one’s going to do their speech. Of course you’ll do it.” Irma paused a moment to hear the “Yes”. Holly again said, “No.”
Irma would have none of it. She quickly scurried from her high school English classroom to my Mother’s classroom, where my Mom taught kindergarten at the other end of the K-12 school building. Irma figured that Mom would agree and tell Holly what to do. But Mom sided with Holly. “Irma, this was not something Holly enjoyed. She just doesn’t want to do it again.” Now, there were two against Irma, and nobody, absolutely nobody had ever stood up to Irma before.
I watched, fascinated. Who was going to win? It was so contrary to Holly’s nature to ever resist. She didn’t do anything to excess. She was honestly, truthfully, thoroughly nice.
The day of the PTA meeting came. Irma once more informed Holly that she was expected to give her speech. Irma knew we had choir rehearsal that evening so she clarified the plan: “Holly, you’ll do the choir rehearsal and when your turn comes, we’ll come and get you. It’s all worked out.” Holly sweetly said, “No.”
That evening Holly wore her oldest clothes to choir rehearsal. I didn’t even know Holly owned such ratty clothes – but it was her ace in the hole so Irma wouldn’t want her to show herself to the PTA. Irma stopped by choir rehearsal to tell Holly it was time, glanced at her clothes, but she was not to be deterred. I watched and listened from my chair in the alto section. No one around me seemed to realize the momentous duel that was going on here, but Holly repeated, “I am not doing the speech.” Poor Irma. She had nothing else to do but to huff and puff a bit, turn around, march into the auditorium and tell the PTA that she couldn’t get her star speaker and star student to give her speech.
I was proud of Holly. I had never seen anything like it – not in 1962. No one else had ever seen anything like it either.
Holly would not consider herself “plucky.” It was too casual a word for her classiness. But she was plucky. She proved it in 1962. And she proved it again in 2004 when she was diagnosed with ALS, (Lou Gehrig’s Disease.) It’s a fatal disease, and few stand up to it. It’s a disease that would wilt almost everyone. But not Holly. She knew it was not a disease that she could defeat. But she wouldn’t be cowered. She died in 2006, standing up to it with grace and courage in the same way she had stood up to Irma years before. With aplomb. Staying nice. And downright plucky.