“I feel like she’s special. She feels like my friend.”
Drive 80 miles north from Salt Lake City, through a valley where light glints off the Great Salt Lake and through a jagged mountain pass. Snow — as light as spun sugar — falls from the sky and slicks the road. Drive until you’ve nearly hit the Idaho border.
At the outskirts of Hyrum — population: 7,600 — is a welcome sign, partially hidden behind a clump of tall yellow grass. Keep going. Five miles further, abutting the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, is Canyon Elementary School. Its entryway smells of cheese pizza and new crayons, and laughter reverberates. Down the main hallway, on the left, is Room 108.
Jane Olsen’s classroom is a forgotten world, one where everything is labeled or miniature. The white cinderblock walls are plastered with numbers, alphabet letters and laminated posters. An upright piano divides the room, and a giant rug shaped like a calendar covers the floor.
For a moment, Room 108 is empty. Then the clock strikes 1:30 p.m., and nineteen first-graders barrel inside, chattering and carrying artwork. Sera Blanke — a petite 6-year-old with crimped shoulder-length hair and nails painted pink — is among them. She shouldn’t have made it to first grade after the accident that nearly killed her, and yet here she is, navigating the maze of tiny desks and finding her seat.
Olsen, trim and straight-backed with piercing blue eyes and an easy smile, waits while the students settle. Charm bracelets jangle on her wrist. She rings a bell — ting! — and the chatter halts. A girl wearing pink boots — seated near Sera — suddenly raises her hand, slicing the air with its abruptness.
“Mrs. Olsen, we lost all of our points in art class,” she says. “Jordan wasn’t listening.”
“Hm,” Olsen says. “Did that make you feel sad or mad? Irritated?”
“Irritated,” the girl says, leaning forward in her desk.
“I hear you,” Olsen says, crouching to her level. “Do you think those nice ladies plan for art the night before? They want you to have a good day, don’t you think? How do you think they feel when you don’t behave?”
The classroom falls silent, her students caught in thought. Frozen rain pings on the windows.
Jane Olsen grew up in this small town, raised by a bovine pedicurist father and a stay-at-home mother. Her parents taught her to love skiing and the great outdoors, and when she was 15, they gave her a younger sister, whom she loved most of all. The baby was as tiny and delicate as Olsen’s beloved dolls. She felt like the girl’s second mother.
Olsen is warm and effervescent, radiating an indescribable magic. Children gravitate to her, and their parents do, too. As a teenager, she was the best babysitter in the neighborhood. Three families competed for her services, she will proudly tell you, booking her two weeks in advance to ensure she was available.
As she got older, Olsen considered becoming a nurse or a beautician or maybe a teacher. But she hated the sight of blood and wasn’t adept at styling hair. The answer was seemingly decided for her. She studied education at Utah State University in Logan, about 10 miles north of Hyrum, and after graduation, moved back to her hometown and got married.
Olsen taught first grade for two years but stepped away from the classroom when she had her first son, Nick. She spent the next two decades caring for her growing brood, which expanded to include six children, now ranging in age from 26 to 39. She ran a preschool from her home, too. Children — hers and others — were always underfoot.
When Olsen’s youngest daughter, Morgan, turned 15, she returned to full-time teaching. It was a family affair, and everyone chipped in: her husband cutting laminated posters and cross-stitching the alphabet, her daughters grading spelling tests and math quizzes. The sacrifice was worthwhile because Olsen was impacting children’s lives, making them feel seen and heard in ways others didn’t.
“I’ve loved children my whole life, and that’s why I wanted to teach in a school,” Olsen said. “Just hoping that I could change somebody’s life and inspire them to be better. Recently, I saw this child who was once in my class. He said, ‘You’re still my favorite teacher.’ And he’s in his forties! That makes you feel good, when you touch lives.”
Children learn better when they are playing, Olsen knows, and that’s how she teaches. She doesn’t believe in curriculum that forces students to bubble ovals on a Scantron. She toggles between concepts, combining mathematics with grammar and Spanish. She makes up songs on the piano and lets her students paint, unafraid of stains and messes.
Sometimes her colleagues ask: “How do you find time for all of the games?” And Olsen never has an answer. She just does, because she thinks it’s important.
Olsen is ever-patient — never perturbed by the mayhem 6-year-olds bring — even when they wiggle in their seats or raise their hands for the bathroom pass or sharpen their wooden pencils when she is trying to teach. They love her, delivering a never-ending stream of handmade art to her desk.
“Kids are good character readers,” said Carrie Kendrick, a kindergarten teacher at Canyon Elementary School. “They can sense other people’s love. And they can sense it in Jane. I’ve never seen her be annoyed by people. I am trying to think of the words, but it’s just a feeling. When you are with her, you are comfortable and welcome. Her energy levels are high.”
In Room 108, the children are cutting a strip of numbers into squares for a math game. Olsen smiles at Sera, the 6-year-old with crimped hair and polished nails.
“Good job, Sera,” Olsen says, and Sera beams, leaning out of her seat in excitement and biting her bottom lip as she concentrates on the paper cards. She is “tenderhearted” and “smart as a whip,” according to Olsen. And she is succeeding.
"If Mrs. Olsen believed in her, then she could believe in herself. Her positivity and encouragement and willingness — and just the way she has about her — lifted Sera up. She has made more progress with my daughter than any of the doctors or therapists or specialists."
Olsen showed Sera how to trust and re-engage with the world again after she was involved in a nearly fatal car accident over the summer. Experiencing hardship and heartbreak allows you to recognize it in others, and in Sera, Olsen sees herself.
She told Sera about Kim, her 31-year-old daughter who has been told three times in the past five years that she will die from adrenal cortical carcinoma. She recognizes fear and makes Sera — and the rest of her class — feel safe even when they are scared or angry.
Olsen teaches her class about empathy, modeling how to identify and express their emotions — a lesson that can’t be learned in a textbook. She cares about her students so much that she visits their families in early August, spending a half-hour in their homes talking to their parents, learning the names of their pets and seeing their favorite toys.
Teaching involves more than the hours spent in a classroom, she knows.
“It’s something I royally enjoy, so I can get to know the students before they walk in the classroom,” Olsen said. “Before they walk in, I’ve studied their picture and know their name. I know where they live and have met their dog. I really like being able to correspond with them about those things. I wouldn’t know those more personal things if I didn’t visit.”
If she hadn’t done these visits, she might not have known about Sera’s accident.
Something about that June afternoon — two months before Sera started first grade — was special. The sky was a clear summer blue, and blooming flowers speared the dirt. Magpies and finches tittered from the trees.
Ranae Blanke steered her four children out of the house and pulled their bikes from the garage. She didn’t normally take them on family rides. But the chores inside were done, and the outdoors beckoned.
Sera rode a pink ‘Hello Kitty’ bicycle without training wheels, a hand-me-down from her 9-year-old sister, Lauren. The toddler, Miranda, was buckled into her seat on Ranae’s bike, and 14-year-old Tanner rode in the back, keeping an eye on his sisters. They rode to the grocery store, less than a mile away, for snacks. Sera picked a chocolate bar and a Sunkist, and they swung from a plastic bag looped on her handlebars.
As they crossed the street to bike home — the children lined as neatly as ducklings behind Ranae — a man driving a pumped-up truck appeared out of nowhere and hit Sera, knocking her unconscious. Her head was less than an inch from his front tire, and her pink bike was crunched into a jumble of metal.
Two young men who had been walking nearby pulled Sera out from under the truck, and an ambulance whisked her to the hospital. Even after she cleared their tests and returned home — instructed to avoid any strenuous thinking because of a traumatic brain injury — the 6-year-old was forever changed.
She wouldn’t leave the house without wearing a helmet. She pulled her hair out in clumps in the bathtub and ground her teeth. She got migraines jumping on the trampoline and trying to read books. She couldn’t sleep. Sera, the sweetest of the Blanke children, became cranky and irritable. She was a Yo-Yo of emotions, swinging from anger to joy to sorrow.
“You would find her on the couch in a ball of tears,” Ranae said. “When you asked, ‘What is the matter?’ She would say, ‘I don’t know, I just think something bad is going to happen.’ She saw herself differently. Her entire personality changed. We really doubted she would be able to go back to school.”
And then she met Jane Olsen.
When Olsen visited the Blankes in August, she sat on their living room couch and talked to Sera as a person — not as a child. School was starting in a few weeks, and she wanted to know how she felt about it.
Initially, Sera was apprehensive and cagey. She was a broken girl, one who felt lost and violated, and she didn’t want to answer Olsen’s questions. Migraines and back spasms wracked her, and she didn’t understand why her brain didn’t work. Sera didn’t trust strangers, and Olsen was a stranger.
But less than an hour after Olsen arrived, Sera was sitting in her lap and giving her hugs. Olsen listened as Sera told her about the bike and the truck. She called her “sweetheart” and commented on how scary the accident must have been. She validated Sera’s feelings and wrapped her in that feeling of warmth and safety — the quintessential ‘Jane Olsen’ aura that few can describe.
After she had left, Sera seemed lighter.
“I really feel like she likes me,” Sera said.
“Honey, of course she does,” Ranae said.
“I feel like she’s special,” Sera said. “She feels like my friend.”
“Sweetie, are you excited to meet her at school?” Ranae asked “Do you think you can do this?”
On the first day of school, Sera walked through the lobby of Canyon Elementary School — smelling of cheese pizza and new crayons — to Room 108. She sat at her desk and shyly smiled at her classmates. At first, she wouldn’t raise her hand, instead rushing to the front of the classroom to whisper questions in Olsen’s ear.
For weeks, Ranae would pick up her daughter and anxiously ask Olsen if anything had gone wrong. She always gave the same miraculous answer: No. Sera became more confident. She began shouting out answers in front of her classmates and staying after school to help with chores, sometimes earning a piece of candy from the treat jar.
“Mrs. Olsen quickly became a figure in Sera’s life,” Ranae said. “If Mrs. Olsen believed in her, then she could believe in herself. Her positivity and encouragement and willingness — and just the way she has about her — lifted Sera up. She has made more progress with my daughter than any of the doctors or therapists or specialists.”
On this February afternoon, ten minutes after the final bell has rung, Sera counts the squares on the giant calendar rug on the floor — something she couldn’t do in August. Her parents lean against the doorframe, talking to Olsen. Soon, they say goodbye.
Sera gives her teacher one last hug. She’ll see her tomorrow, Sera promises. As she crosses the doorway and turns down the hallway — out of sight — Olsen is still smiling.
Photography by Lance Murphey
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