Carlson to retire from Osceola High School
It takes a special kind of passion to get high school students to actually enjoy Shakespeare.
Kevin Carlson has taught drama and English at Osceola High School for the better part of 35 years. He began running the drama club in 1983, before transitioning to teaching full-time in the late 1990s.
He’s spent his career sharing his own personal love of Shakespeare and literature to his students. But the 2019-20 school year will be his last in the district. Carlson is set to retire at the end of the current term, and will leave behind a lifetime of memories at Osceola.
Carlson graduated from Osceola High School in 1977. He earned his college degree in 1987 and worked for a small manufacturing company in Minneapolis before transitioning to teaching.
“I really wanted to teach from the beginning,” he said.
Carlson began as a substitute teacher in Osceola in 1998, before taking over the English position in 2000. He said he never had any apprehension about working at the same high
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working at the same high school he attended.
“Part of the reason I wanted to be a teacher was I had a really excellent experience at Osceola,” he said. “The faculty in the 1970s were extremely supportive and I wanted to duplicate that for students.”
Carlson talks about teaching with the same kind of passion he uses to talk about Shakespeare and literature in general. It’s obvious even from an outsider’s perspective that he possesses the kind of natural curiosity needed to be a good teacher.
“I love literature, I’ve loved reading my entire life,” he said. “And I’ve always loved Shakespeare and loved teaching it. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of what I do.”
Carlson’s passion for Shakespeare began by studying Hamlet when he was at Osceola High, and was nurtured later on at the University of Minnesota where he received a theatre minor. He’s always loved teaching Romeo and Juliet in particular.
“It’s so accessible and the students are (the characters’) age,” he said. “They start off just convinced that they’re going to hate it. I just ask them to keep an open mind and by the time we’re done they look at me and say ‘Are you kidding, we’re done?’”
Carlson also brought his love of Shakespeare to the drama club, which performed a number of Shakespeare and Shakespeare themed plays over the years, including Romeo and Juliet.
“We didn’t do a dumbed down version either,” he said. “We did the full on Romeo and Juliet.”
Carlson’s freshman English class would be studying Romeo and Juliet at the same time and many of the freshmen were in drama club.
“They were reading it, learning it and performing it all at the same time,” he said. “So that was an incredible experience.”
When Carlson began teaching, the experience of the average student was very different than it is today. Technology and social norms have shifted, giving students opportunities they never had in the past, but also leaving them to navigate difficult teenage years with problems their parents never had to deal with.
“Kids now are under extreme amounts of stress,” he said. “I see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. And I regret that.”
Cell phones and social media are the main culprit. Carlson said technology is a blessing and a curse for students. Bullying has gone on since the dawn of time, but online interaction makes it impossible for students today to get away from it.
“Those kids are constantly connected,” he said. “Cell phones are a wonderful thing, but they’re joined at the hip, and they’re spending too much time on them.”
For the most part though, Carlson said kids are kids. They’re passionate and resilient, qualities that have come in particularly handy in 2020.
Carlson announced his retirement in early March, not knowing only a few weeks later Gov. Evers would shut down schools statewide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Carlson and his students wondering if they’d see each other again before the end of the year.
“Even though nobody knew, everybody still had at least the suspicion that this could in fact, be it,” he said. “So that was a tough day.”
Like the rest of the teachers at Osceola and across the country, Carlson has resorted to communicating with his students online in distance learning classes. He’s doing what needs to be done, but struggles with the lack of closure the pandemic has created.
“I held out hope that we’d be able to come back,” he said. “It was certainly not what I had envisioned when I made the decision to move on to other things. I pictured my last year going differently.”
Regardless of how it ends, Carlson will move on at the end of the year. He hopes for only the very best for his students, and will miss them dearly.
“My hope for them is that they would see themselves the way I have always seen them,” he said. “Which is unlimited potential, unlimited value, unlimited worth. I hope they see themselves that way.”
Carlson plans to stay busy at home. He hopes to help out here and there with the drama club and is also a part owner of Riverwood Kayak and Canoe Rental in Osceola. Carlson will also travel to Vietnam, another lifelong passion.
Like every American kid who graduated high school in the mid 1970s, Carlson grew up watching newsreels about the Vietnam War on television.
Most children were passive consumers, the war taking on a white noise quality in the background of their everyday lives, but Carlson had a much more personal connection to the country. His grandparents moved to Vietnam in 1927 to work as missionaries and Carlson’s father was born and raised there until the Second World War forced the family out of the country. Carlson grew up with stories about the people and culture of Vietnam, and has traveled there extensively as an adult.
“For me Vietnam was not the body bags,” he said. “It was the stories my dad told me about growing up there.”
Carlson plans to return to Vietnam regularly after his retirement. He’s hoping to spend two weeks there this fall, where he’ll meet up with some friends who own a coffee shop in Saigon.
On the second floor of this coffee house are what’s called ‘speaking rooms,’ where local residents can go to practice their conversational English. The language is taught regularly in Vietnamese schools today, but many people still struggle with actually speaking English and head to these cafés to brush up over a cup of coffee.
Should they be so lucky, next November some of them might run into a lifelong teacher, fresh out of retirement and looking for new students.