Updated: Mar 16, 2022
I plan to spend 2022 thanking the people who have influenced my life. One of the biggest reasons some kids end up in jail, and others somehow avoid that path, is because of the mentors they had access to during their lifetime. Some people I want to acknowledge have died, but many are still alive - and I hope to recognize how profound their interaction in my life affected me.
Joan Kihlstrom was my grade school Art teacher. She was quirky - I suppose what you should expect out of a creative type. Her afro-like hair sat upon her round frame. She rarely stood in one place, but rushed from student to student, racing around the art room that was filled with bright paint colors splashed on the tables and floor. Her hands were usually mucked up with wet clay from the pottery studio that was next to the art room.
“Kumar, you stop it this minute,” she spoke sternly while looking up at me. She was short but stood her ground, refusing to be intimidated by my poor behavior. There was something about Mrs. Kihlstrom, where she could see the best in others. I was a troubled kid and was often taking out the frustration I suffered at home, in violent ways at school. If you knew me growing up, you’ll remember they often suspended me for violent outbursts.
As I moved on to high school (I attended a k-12 school), and no longer took art classes, she somehow kept a careful eye on me. Once, when the disciplinary board was meeting to discuss my fate, Mrs. Kihlstrom barged into the room and took a seat. Even though she didn’t sit on the committee, she told me she would not let them decide without a fight from her.
Over the years, I started calling her “mom,” instead of Mrs. Kihlstrom. My actual mother told me years later that it offended her at first that I was calling someone else “mom”. But once she witnessed how loving Mrs. Kihlstrom treated me, she fully understood and dropped her resentment.
A few years ago, I visited Mrs. and Mr. Kihlstrom in their home. She had some sort of dementia that induced her to speak in rhymes (yes, true story, everything she said ended with rhyming words). It broke my heart to see this woman who was wide-eyed, and filled with enthusiasm, sitting in her chair like a ghost - a shell of who she once was. But that is where legacy is important. We all grow old, get diseases, and decline. Yet, it is what we give to others (self-esteem, respect, love) that continues to carry on.
Mrs. Kihlstrom died a couple of years later. I spoke to her husband, John, a few times afterward. Sadly, their only daughter, Chele, who was in my grade, died tragically in a car accident last year, followed by Mr. Kihlstrom who passed away almost a year later.
I knew little about her personal life or her life story. I only saw her from my vantage point, as a child, someone who genuinely appeared to be thrilled when I walked in the room. She once told me, “When you were in the fourth grade, you told me you wanted to be a pastor. And I knew that is exactly what you would become.” Most adults had an excellent reason for seeing me for the troubled kid I was, and not getting involved. I understand because I have felt that way towards some tough kids in my ministry. But, today, I am thanking God for using Mrs. Kihlstrom to remind me of my worth.