By Jimmy Ewing
My mother dropped me off in Katherine Koonce’s driveway for the first time when I was 15. I had braces and no girlfriend. It was a Tuesday.
I rattled and jerked the few short miles to her house in our crummy Chrysler minivan under my mother’s watchful eye and the protection of my learner’s license. The learner’s permit was a rite of passage that felt like pure, sweet, freedom until the first time she shrieked “WATCH OUT!!” during an entirely normal lane change, clawed wildly at the door handle, and finally wilted into the seat cushions—heaving and overwrought as if fighting off a seizure.
It felt like chains thereafter.
Mrs. Koonce met us barefoot in the driveway with a child on her hip and her brown curly hair clipped up off her neck. She had a red pen behind her ear and a spring in her step that was impossible to ignore. This person, I was told, would be my literature teacher. I took careful note of the red pen and, some 28 years later, I find that it left its mark on more than just my term papers.
“Times New Roman. 10pt. Single-spaced. Cover page, please. You know I know about fonts, right?” That, scrawled broadly across the front of my first submission, cured me of “12pt Courier New” forever.
I remember well a comfortable sectional in an open lower-level room with a pleasant view of a golf course through a dense screen of mature oaks, four close friends draped casually across the soft brown cushions. Justin, Alison, Austin, and me. There appeared a periodic interloper into our literary society over the next several years but none of consequence, and they seemed to fade quickly—such that I remember each as only vague outlines with no faces. For the most part, it was just us.
She took the job of us very seriously, though, insisting on excellence. No one missed class or wanted to. There were no late papers. There was no A for “effort”. There was only a red pen and a sharp-witted person driving it who saw in us some glimmer of hope, some spark, something beyond a little paycheck for the effort and her time. Two days each week for most of our high school careers she poured herself into us unselfishly, with dedication and fervor that we did not, at the time, appreciate and probably didn’t deserve.
For that effort, all she got was whatever our parents paid her, which probably wasn’t enough and also 4 teenage friends, forever.
I hope it was worth it.
The educational landscape for homeschooling families in the early 90s was nothing you would recognize. Many of you taught your children at home recently due to covid because you HAD to. Imagine doing it on purpose. Even worse—when we began, there was no internet. To be clear in today’s lexicon: “like, it wasn’t a thing.” So, there was no corresponding easy list of everything and simple connection to everywhere that you have now in your pocket.
Please allow me to illustrate in a bit more detail: Apple’s mantra in the development of the iPod was “1,000 songs in your pocket.” In 1995 I had to physically enter a retail store to buy CDs for $16.99 apiece that each only held 12 songs; then, I had to protect them with my very life to prevent scratches on their plastic mirrored surfaces. This high level of care might ensure I could listen to them more than once without skipping. A week later, I had listened to the new music with such intensity that any inadvertent exposure to U2’s “Joshua Tree” album, for instance, would guarantee stress dreams and a stiff gait for weeks afterwards.
Now, in that limited technological environment, imagine yourself setting out to build an educational curriculum for 3 children, all 4 years apart, starting in 1st grade, with absolutely no help; fend off disapproving relatives, hormones, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and corrosive culture; make sure they have a friend, or at least enough sense to wish they had one; and then get them all ready for college. That was the homeschooling movement in America in the 90s.
My dad remarked, privately, every time someone congratulated him on “saving all that money on private school” that taking a genius woman with multiple degrees out of the workforce and dedicating her to our development made ours the most singularly expensive education in the history of the world, and he hoped we appreciated it, even if no one else did. We did.
The homeschooling crowd ran the gamut from perfectly normal families looking for a less institutionalized approach to education, like us, all the way to modern hillbilly apocalypse preppers who chafed at “shoes” and “guv’ment.” At the time I estimated that the ideal homeschooling experience would involve friends in both camps, just in case.
If you were a girl and drew the unlucky family straw, sure, you may have made your own clothes and conditioned well-water before bath time, BUT you also didn’t have to worry about dating. Your dad would select a suitor from among a very thin crowd of interested parties fairly desperate for a glimpse of your ankles, the only part of you not modestly swathed in denim. If you were a male, you may have been pressed into “intentional dating” or “courtship,” which involved a lot of prospective father-in-law time and was awful for everyone, but was a very effective form of birth control.
My family was pretty regular, all things considered, and the whole thing seemed fine to me at the time. Furthermore, my siblings and our close friends all found ourselves exceptionally well-prepared for college, where we excelled, then established promising careers just in time to flail and struggle through life like everyone else in their 20s. My brother graduated from Georgia Tech in 5 years with 2 advanced engineering degrees and no children. I consider that a solid performance from someone who received most of his education barefoot.
It was an imperfect, wonderful, happy, at times difficult, way of life and I would do it again. In fact, we pursue a version of the homeschool experience for our children.
The prospect of homeschooling presents a daunting task for a parent even now with all the access to information and communication that we have today. Imagine 30 years ago when the “White Pages” and the public library were our primary sources of information. It is hard to believe we ever made a new friend, but it may explain why we have held on to them so tenaciously.
This is not to say our lives were entirely devoid of innovation; we had one technological advancement that still exists, if informally, today: the “phone tree,” and that was state-of-the-art technology.
It worked like this: an enterprising homeschool mom compiled a list of all the moms’ home phone lines because nobody, except rich dads, had cell phones. She would take that list to Kinko’s and make duplicates to distribute at the next homeschool gathering. When something interesting happened, whoever discovered the interesting thing would call the next person on the list and tell her all about that thing with breathless abandon. At no point were dads involved, ever. A man’s voice on the other end of the line would have caused panic and a run on the local banks. Thus, the dissemination of vital information was effected and dads were kept entirely in the dark for as long as possible.
Unfortunately, hardly anyone owned answering machines until well into the 90s, so number 6 on the list might be forced to skip number 7 and go straight to 8 who sent her to 10 because she knew 9 was out of town and 7 had kids with strep. This went on in a round-robin format until, finally, the voice on the other end of the line said “Yes, I know about the thing; I’m the one who initiated the phone tree.” It was pure chaos. This phenomenon is likely being actively studied in laboratory rats today. I don’t know.
Fortunately for me, Katherine Koonce’s generous offer to teach literature to homeschoolers trickled through the phone tree to my house, and I was sent up to the front lines. I have no idea what could possibly have possessed her to want to help us, but she did, and to say that the impact she had on my life was “profound” would be a dramatic understatement.
The energetic, happy, occasionally moody, always hilarious, entertaining, lovely, and vivacious woman I recall so well in her 30s (my teens) would toss her unruly mop of hair, point her nose at the sky, and fairly howl at our sheltered little lives, our tentative first steps into adulthood, and our cautious forays into a much bigger world that she had seen and we had not. I can hear her laughing now. She helped instill in me an appreciation for great literature and, second only to my parents and grandparents, is the person most singularly responsible for my life-long love of writing and, perhaps even more importantly, providing the encouragement and developing the confidence in me to attempt it.
When I wrote my first children’s book, Katherine Koonce was the person I sent copies to. And would object to my use of “to” at the end of that sentence and “And” at the beginning of this one.
When anyone asks me about writing or people who have impacted me, her name comes up. She was the person I remained close to in my heart, if not my schedule, but was never far from my mind. Perhaps you have one of those people in your life as well.
It is silly of me, I know, but when I saw my friend’s face last week for the first time in a number of years, her image splashed across our pathetic news media’s frantic attempts to redirect my attention from something important to a banner ad selling me insurance, of all things, I was surprised to see gray at her temples and lines on her face. She is so young and alive, still, in my mind that the incongruence is striking. She hasn’t aged a day. Then, I look in the mirror.
We accept it as fact in the face of overwhelming evidence, but no one ever asks the singer, “why DO ‘the good die young?’” How often we find a grain of truth buried at the intersection of art and culture. However, this is not an American phenomenon; that phrase was first memorialized in the year 445…Before Christ.
I am despairingly unsurprised to discover that the child of a murdered parent was, herself, murdered, handing down that bitter legacy to the next generation. That is nothing if not eerily consistent with my understanding of the legacy of true evil. Her death seems far too strategic and intentional, too important on a spiritual scale, to be anything but the direct result of a dark campaign, desperate to appear random. This does not feel random to me.
“The good die young”? I can’t imagine a truer manifestation of evil than to expect to lose the best and the brightest among us, worse, even, that we have accepted it as fact and incorporated it into our culture. This tragedy isn’t new, and it doesn’t matter the form, or the motive, or who did what and how. Evil corrodes and undermines. It confuses and subverts. It distracts. Evil glories in the destruction of the best and the most vulnerable. It is patient; it masquerades as Good. Evil like this has been loose in the world since the very beginning, and it will dim every light if we let it.
Fortunately, people like Katherine Koonce exist, and they simply won’t.
When my mother was murdered, some 17 years ago, now, the Good died young for me, too, and I discovered that Katherine and I had something in common. She came to the funeral, came to see me, and also sent me a letter, the only letter I received from someone who actually foresaw the path I would be forced to travel, and had walked it herself. It was one of many hundreds of encouraging letters I received at the time, but it is one I saved and one whose advice I do my best to apply, even today:
I wanted to wait to write you until some of the chaos and confusion of the days following your mother’s death had subsided. I know better than to say “when things get back to normal,” because things will never get back to normal, at least not in the way you’ve always defined “normal.” So, you and your family will have to find your new normal. Each of you may reach it in a different way as your grief takes you to places you didn’t know existed. As I told you when I saw you, there is no right way to grieve this. You do not need to be a model, an example, to anyone in your grief. Just grieve, and do it honestly. As you may remember, my father died tragically and violently when I was seventeen. At the time I thought I needed to be a witness to others in my grief process. Years later, I realized I had been so busy trying to grieve properly, that I hadn’t grieved honestly. This, of course, created its own set of problems. My point is simply this: have integrity in your emotions, in your reactions, because you are a man of integrity, and God will honor that.
I know you have received a lifetime of advice from people over the past few weeks, and I’m going to add mine to the pile. The two areas from which I have always found comfort and relief are reading and writing, and in this we are similar. I don’t know if you are familiar with Henri Nouwen, but I hope this little book* makes you fall in love with his writings, of which there are many. And I am including a journal for obvious reasons. Your natural ability to write beautifully is a gift from God Himself. I can only believe that He will also use this gift to walk you through the heaviness and the pain as you find your way to a new “normal.”
And her light still burns.
*”Can You Drink The Cup?”, by Henri Nouwen