The Best Teacher I Never Had

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This photograph hangs in Tamarack Lodge, Twin Lakes. Jill Kinmont is pictured on the right.

I recently found myself poking around Tamarack Lodge on the shores of Twin Lakes near Mammoth Mountain. I made my way down a dimly lit, narrow hallway. There to my right, two girls decked out in fur-trimmed anoraks posed next to their skis in a black and white photograph from the early 1950s. Their smiles radiated joy and confidence across time. I recognized the girl on the right. Mrs. Boothe! I practically jumped. I pulled my phone out, snapped a quick photograph and posted it for my sister to see. I felt like I had found an old friend.

Growing up in Bishop, all the kids knew about Mrs. Boothe, special education teacher at Elm Street Elementary School and the former star skier known as Jill Kinmont. In 1955 Jill Kinmont slid on ice and fell while competing in the giant slalom at the Snow Cup race in Utah. Just days before the race, Sports Illustrated had followed her around Sun Valley, Idaho as she trained with other Olympic hopefuls. Only she wasn’t hopeful as much as a shoo-in. Kinmont trained at Mammoth Mountain with Dave McCoy and friends and was the only person to win the women’s National Junior and Senior slalom in the same year. All eyes were on the eighteen-year-old and according to Sports Illustrated she was worth it:

“This year she looked like prime Olympic material, and George Macomber and Christian Pravda, special coaches at the camp, kept a close eye on her as she swung through the practice gates on Baldy Mountain. Every other man was watching because she was easily the prettiest girl in the place.”

Jill Kinmont made the cover of this January 1955 Sports Illustrated.

Jill Kinmont made the cover of this January 1955 Sports Illustrated.

Jill Kinmont never walked again. The accident left her paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. However, she did, through extensive rehabilitation, recover a lot of movement, including the ability to write and paint. Though I always felt sorry for her and wished she had never been hurt, I realize now that she did not feel sorry for herself. She found purpose and committed herself to the children in the Owens Valley, including establishing a special educational fund on the Paiute Reservation. She even became an accomplished water colorist, selling paintings, calendars and boxes of greeting cards in Spellbinder Books.

Actress Marilyn Hassett won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jill Kinmont in this 1975 film.

Actress Marilyn Hassett won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jill Kinmont in this 1975 film.

Mrs. Boothe’s life story was the subject of two films. Anytime The Other Side of the Mountain played on television, my family stopped what we were doing and sat to watch. I enjoyed trying to identify the film’s locations. I spotted the picnic pavilion surrounded by the duck pond in the middle of Bishop City Park and views of Mount Tom from Round Valley. Bishop must be important, I reasoned, for not only were all these places on film, but Beau Bridges played the boyfriend! It seemed miraculous. I read the book, too, paging through all the photographs. I held Mrs. Boothe very dear, for she not only lost part of her body, she also suffered several setbacks with the deaths of two boyfriends and a close mentor. Yet because I was not one of Mrs. Boothe’s students, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to her and asking her questions. I don’t think I said more than “Good Morning,” in all my years as an elementary school student. And yet my fourth grade classroom was only a few doors down the hall from hers.

Mrs. Boothe died in early 2012 after a long career in education. I was so saddened by her passing, but amazed at the news coverage. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times published obituaries! Bishop and Mammoth Lakes and the Owens Valley were important, really they were! Mrs. Boothe had once again brought my childhood valley to the national stage.

As a kid I thought a lot about what I would have done if I were similarly injured and made a quadriplegic. I concluded, over and over, that I would be inconsolable. I doubted I would ever recover like Mrs. Boothe.

With a more mature perspective, I see that what is more important than imagining such silly things as becoming paralyzed (the likelihood of which is so low it’s absurd to spend even a moment worrying about it) is to focus on contributing. This Earth needs all of us to fulfill a purpose and a passion.

Mrs. Boothe never seemed very focused on the past or on what she had lost. And though she may find my own musings overly sentimental, I think she would agree with me that the essential question is this: what can you do to be a blessing to everyone you meet?

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