An Immigrant Story: Miss Fisher’s Gift
by Piet Reinier Knetsch
We emigrated from the Netherlands in 1955. My father, Reinier Knetsch, had a burning desire to be close to his brother Freek, who had emigrated in 1947. My mother Maria had no desire to come to the USA, for doing so meant leaving her very close-knit family, most of whom resided in or near the town of Lisse in the heart of the tulip district. But we went – my father (age 45), mother (41), sister Riet (17), brother Rene (3), and I, age twelve at the time.
We traveled on the immigrant ship De Groote Beer, populated with immigrants from the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. We arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, where we were met by my cousin Louis Knetsch and his wife Barbara. After hurriedly taking care of some business in New York (where I ate my first hamburger!), all of us piled into their early ‘50s Oldsmobile and headed for Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was an awful trip, traveling through the night with seven of us sandwiched into that car. In Michigan we stayed with uncle Arie Knetsch and his wife Pietje. My father had two other siblings who resided in Kalamazoo, a brother Lodewijk and sister Arendje. Of the ten children in my father’s family, five were now in the USA.
After a lengthy stay in Michigan we traveled by train to our final destination of Wichita, Kansas, arriving in the middle of that blistering 1955 summer. As Freek and Annie’s house was small, our family was immediately divided up: Papa, Mama and Rene stayed with Freek & Annie, Riet with cousin Annie, and I stayed with cousin Louis. This continued until such time that we were able to rent our first little house – one bedroom, no indoor bath or toilet, no hot water. In Ede, we had lived in a two-story brick house. Such was our initial welcome to America.
Soon August came around, and cousin Louis took me to the administrative offices at Wichita East High School. Frankly I have precious little recollection of the entire event, especially as I did not understand what was being discussed and was intimidated by the whole process. The principal and some other ‘old men’ all huddled with Louis as they decided upon my fate – my placement, that is. Louis had my report cards from the MULO (High School) in Ede, the Netherlands. Having skipped a grade and completing elementary school at age eleven, I had completed my first year of MULO before we emigrated. In that first year, I had taken three foreign languages (English, German, French), algebra, geometry – in all, some nineteen subjects. I’ve always wondered how that discussion went with Louis and the administrators, given that they could not possibly understand my schooling in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, they decided to enroll me as a sophomore at East High School. Not only was I twelve years of age, I stood only about 5’2″ and weighed perhaps 95 lbs – I even looked the part!
The dreaded first day of school arrived. East High School had more than 3,000 students, and the building was imposing. Everything about me contributed to my sticking out from the crowd – the last thing I wanted. In the Netherlands in the 1950’s, sandals worn over socks were in style – but definitely not in the USA! As if it was not already so obvious that I did not ‘belong’, there was my apparel! Some boys (who seemed like grown men to me) made mocking comments which I did not understand, but I knew they were laughing at me, and I was humiliated. In truth, however, most of the students were kind and helpful. Recognizing that I was frightened and lost, my class schedule clutched in my hand, several girls took me all the way to my assigned classrooms. The whole first day was an exercise in terror, and when I got home I told my mother that I had no intention of going back until I had the proper clothes! In spite of money being such a problem, my mother soon made that happen and I quickly had the 1955 school “uniform” – blue jeans, T-shirt, white socks and loafers. Still a puny little Dutch boy, I at least started to look a bit American.
My first class each morning was Speech. An interesting choice, for someone who couldn’t yet speak English. The teacher was Miss Sherla Lee Fisher, who in my eyes appeared to be ancient. She was in fact about 65, had never married, and the year 1955-56 was to be her final year of teaching before retirement. Miss Fisher taught speech, but she had also been very much involved in the East High drama program in the past. Theatre and speech were her great loves. Now in order to get to school each day, my sister Riet had to take me by car. She had obtained a job, and for quite some time was the family chauffeur. Our morning routine included Riet dropping me off at school, taking Papa to work and then finally going to her own job. By necessity, I therefore I arrived at school well before classes started. I quickly discovered a good hiding place in the cafeteria, where I would sit in a corner hoping no one would see me or speak to me. One day, Miss Fisher came into the cafeteria, and noticed me sitting alone. She invited me to come to her classroom, and commenced giving me private English lessons. For the remainder of the school year that became our daily 30 minute ritual before classes started. I was so eager to be like everyone else, to speak without anyone being able to tell that I was ‘foreign’. I hated comments about my “cute accent”, and constantly being asked where I was from. Like most kids, I simply wanted to fit in. Miss Fisher’s lessons were integral to my intense desire and effort to speak fluent English with no trace of an accent. As a child, I was not fully appreciative of the immense gift which this grandmotherly teacher was giving me, and I question that I ever expressed my appreciation to her. She was going far beyond her responsibilities, and she reached out to help this young Dutch boy.
As I matured and was able to reflect upon my high school years, I recounted and told my Miss Fisher story many times. However, never had I bothered to seek her out and give her my personal thanks. And then it happened, by pure chance. The year was 1978, some twenty-two years since Miss Fisher retired from teaching speech and drama. I was thirty-five, married to my spouse Dottie since 1967, and we had a four-year-old daughter. That fall, Dottie and I were visiting her parents in Wichita, and the four of us went to dinner at a restaurant in a town just east of Wichita. A local community theatre group was putting on a play at the restaurant, and the place was full. A few tables over from us my eye happened to land on a quite elderly lady who, per my memory, looked remarkably like Miss Fisher. I mentioned this to Dottie, and being familiar with my Miss Fisher story, she immediately urged me to go greet the lady. Not wanting to be embarrassed if I were to be mistaken, I of course objected – but in the end Dottie won out. I cautiously went over to the table where the elderly woman was seated, and the conversation went something like this:
Piet: Excuse me, ma’m – by any chance is your name Miss Fisher?
(she turns to him, and gives Piet an intense look)
Miss Fisher: Yes, it is.
Piet: Well, I’m sure that you wouldn’t remember who I – (she cuts him off)
Miss Fisher: (confidently) I’m sure that I do remember – you’re Piet Knetsch!
We had last seen each other in 1956, at which time I was thirteen. Miss Fisher was in her late eighties, while I was thirty-five and wore a full beard – and yet she immediately recognized me! Finally, a couple of decades late, I was able to properly thank Miss Fisher for the gift she had offered to me in that classroom at East High School. I shared with her that I had earned a BA from Wichita State University, served three years in the US Army stationed in Germany, had married and had a daughter. And then came the real clincher. I told Miss Fisher of her influence on my life and career. I had earned an MA and nearly completed my Ph.D. in Theatre. At the time, I was the Director of Theatre on the faculty of Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, directing plays and teaching both Theatre and Speech. Upon hearing that, the tears rolled down Miss Fisher’s cheeks – and mine.
It was one of those incredible moments in life which we rarely experience. Those brief moments with Miss Fisher were and are profound for me. It was not so long afterwards that Miss Fisher died in Wichita. I attended an estate sale at her home, where I purchased a copy of the play King Lear signed by my teacher. There is no way to measure the gift I received from Miss Sherla Lee Fisher. It was a gift of herself, out of her devotion to and love of young people and their education.
Thank you, Miss Fisher.
PS: now seventy-two, I’m still involved in the theatre. Each year, I direct a production for Theatre Lawrence, the local community theatre.