Getting near to Anne Carlsen

My mother has always encouraged me to look for the miracles. Sometimes, I have to squint to see them, and even then I’m not always sure. Was it, or wasn’t it? Other times, they pass by without my noticing. But there are those times when I am astute enough to recognize them when they arrive.

Today, I saw one quite clearly through the eyes of a beautiful child who couldn’t talk with words, but certainly spoke through her bright brown eyes. It was she who brought the miracle to my attention.

This particular miracle has a history that goes something like this:

1915 – Anne Carlsen is born in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. She arrives in this world without forearms or lower legs.

1920 – Anne is denied the chance to go to school because of her disabilities.

1923 – At 8 years of age, Anne is finally admitted into school. She whizzes through her elementary studies in four years.

Upon entering college years later, Anne is discouraged from pursuing a teaching degree. Undaunted, she goes on to obtain four degrees, including a doctorate in education.

1941 – Dr. Anne moves to Jamestown, ND, where she becomes principal of a school for disabled children. She later becomes administrator of the school, which eventually is named The Anne Carlsen Center.

1958 – Anne receives the prestigious President’s Trophy as Handicapped American of the Year.

1980 – She is inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

2002 – Anne dies on December 22.

2003 – I receive the contract to write P is for Peace Garden: A North Dakota Alphabet, and choose to highlight Anne on the "J" page, creating the following rhyme:

Jamestown begins with J. Here lived a gal quite bright. They told her she couldn’t succeed, but jubilant Anne proved her might.

2005 – P is for Peace Garden is published by Sleeping Bear Press as part of its "Discover America State by State" series. It is illustrated by award-winning artist Joanna Yardley.

April 2009 – A scheduled author visit to the Jamestown area organized by a teacher at the Anne Carlsen Center is canceled due to flooding and the need for the school’s residents to evacuate to four different locations throughout the city.

May 6, 2009 – Against certain odds, with dikes and sandbags still in place and the National Guard patrolling and working in the area, the author visit is rescheduled. The students of the Anne Carlsen Center remain evacuated, sleeping and schooling in borrowed spaces, where teachers work out of plastic totes. At 9 a.m., I arrive with author-visit coordinator, Marlena, at the local hospital. There, I am introduced to one of two groups from the center I am to meet. After gathering in their wheelchairs, the children hear me read P is for Peace Garden, and it quickly becomes clear, especially while looking into the eyes of a brown-eyed girl in a red wheelchair, that Anne Carlsen is still very much alive.