A box on their heads, por favor?

Published 11:50 pm Friday, April 12, 2013

“It feels so good to just be with y’all,” my friend Karen told a group of us recently. “I don’t have to be fake Karen. I can just be me.”

I couldn’t help but giggle. But then, Karen’s been making me laugh since kindergarten. I wondered aloud about this mysterious person, Fake Karen.

“Well, at work, I have to act smart,” she explained with seriousness. “That gets old.”

Karen is plenty smart. But she likes life simple and without hidden meanings. “Remember, I’m literal,” she’ll say when she misses a joke. “Explain that, ‘Chele.”

She’s spent her life in education, mostly as an elementary school teacher. Once, when teaching in Birmingham, she was coordinating a project in which every fourth grader would build a diorama. She composed notes asking parents to send boxes to school. And because there were a number of Hispanic students, she used an online translation program to thoughtfully compose a note in Spanish for those parents.

When school was out, she noticed a gathering of Hispanic parents outside the school, obviously unhappy, and clutching the green papers on which she’d printed her translated message.

She quickly learned that her message had been lost in translation. Instead, she’d asked the parents to send their children to school with boxes on their heads.

That was the Real Karen, meaning well, but creating chaos. She spent the afternoon in their neighborhood with a translator, apologizing.

We never tire of teasing her about a speech she gave when running for SGA president. Her theme was “get on the train.”

Last week, she texted us from an educational conference in St. Louis where, while being “Fake Karen,” she had a “Real Karen” moment that involved being lost for two hours on a train of all places. Yep, she always did encourage people to get on a train.

She’s been a reading coach, an English as a second language teacher, and a central office administrator. But this week, my friend was named principal of an elementary school in the Auburn City Schools system. She’ll be responsible for several hundred kindergarten through second grade students when school starts back in August.

I can’t think of a better place to be Real Karen. Sincere and transparent and innocent and loving. She’s going to be awesome.

And I’m going to visit on the day they serve pancakes for breakfast and the children greet her with sticky hugs.

That’s about as real as it gets.