Laughter, wit through three decades
Beloved teacher, coach leaves after 30 years
A canoe drifts through a stretch of lake in the boundary waters, gliding past a shoreline of dense trees that are reflected on the surface of the water. The water is full of native birds that flock together. The land holds a solid mass of plant life and trees. The forest is a thing of beauty, and for Minnehaha French teacher and tennis coach Mark Norlander, it is not only a natural scene where he feels God, but also the way he thinks about teaching.
“If you think of people growing up and becoming adults, from the ages of 14-18, it’s a big time of change, physically and emotionally,” said Norlander. “I like thinking of it as going through a deep, dark forest, and you don’t know where you are going, especially when you’re in there. Teachers are just adults who have already gone through the forest, but they decided to come back through the forest to the people who are just going in.”
After 30 years of helping MA students “through the forest,” Norlander is retiring. He explained that his wife, Sharon, who teaches at Normandale French Immersion Elementary School in Edina, is also retiring from teaching this year and that for him, “the timing was right.” As a long standing member of the community, the impact Norlander has had on Minnehaha students and colleagues has been immense.
“He is a professional, but he wants to engage his students, not only as academic learners, but as people,” said Norlander’s longtime friend and colleague the Rev. Dan Bergstrom, who retired from Minnehaha in 2016. “He cares deeply. He is an introvert, so it is a different kind of expression of care than an extrovert might have, but he deeply cares about [his students].”
Bergstrom has known Norlander for over 30 years, and he explained that not only does Norlander love and care for his students, but he is also a steadfast friend.
“He and I have the relationship where we can tell each other anything about family or whatever that is hurting or stressful, and then the prayers become automatic,” he said. “I can go to [him] and I know I’ll get prayer support, and it goes without saying…Those kind of relationships are rare.”
Norlander loves teaching. His career path began in seventh grade at a Bible camp, when a speaker was talking about living a life for Christ and devoting yourself to serving others.
“At the time I didn’t really know what that meant,” said Norlander. “I went up and asked [the speaker] about it afterwards, and he said, ‘It just means that you want to do God’s will and do whatever he leads you to do.’ I think that was my guiding thought in terms of picking a career. I was never very interested in doing something to become wealthy, that didn’t appeal to me, so I just pursued the things that I had a passion for, and languages and cultures are what I have a passion for.”
Later on, Norlander’s path led him to become a teacher at Minnehaha. “I had taught for seven years at Bethel University, and decided that number one, I wanted to get a graduate degree and number two, I wanted to work with younger students. I went to France to get my master’s degree and when I came back I heard of a job opening here, so I applied, and they made the mistake of hiring me,” he said, smirking.
In his three decades at Minnehaha, Norlander has been a part of the community not only as a teacher and coach, but a parent as well. His two daughters, Emily (‘03) and Celeste (‘09), attended Minnehaha and had their dad as a French teacher.
“A highlight of teaching here was the fact that I got to see my daughters go to through this school and see them graduate,” he said. “They went here from kindergarten through 12th grade, and I got to have them in class, which was fun. I told them before they started class when they were freshman, ‘In class, you have to call me Mr. Norlander, you can’t call me Dad.’ Their response was to laugh at that and they never did call me Mr. Norlander, they just called me Dad.”
After graduating and getting married, Norlander’s daughter Emily Kennett returned to MA to work as Assistant to the Athletic Director, and still works at MA today. Norlander loved having his daughters in class, and through his thirty years at MA he has continued to love teaching. His care for students and colleagues has shown itself in multiple ways, most often through simply making those around him laugh.
“He has got the driest sense of humor that you can imagine, and he is very witty and funny,” said Bergstrom. “He’s a self-described introvert, but he can get people laughing at the drop of a hat, and I think that’s kind of a rare combination because he’s very comfortable sitting in the background too.”
Spanish teacher Anne Calvin, one of Norlander’s colleagues in the world languages department, explained how Norlander’s humor has impacted the faculty and staff community.
“He has been such an important part of establishing that sense of humor within the faculty and staff. I feel thankful to work with really funny people, and he is one of them. He is really clever,” she said, laughing.
Senior French student and French club president Greta Hallberg also appreciates Norlander’s sense of humor.
“I think his humor has been good for me,” she said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever laughed in a class as much as I laugh in French. We do a lot of shenanigans in class. He pranks us and then we try to prank him. Countless times he has hidden behind the door and scared us. I remember one time we asked Mrs. Beck for his key so we could hide in his closet. It didn’t really work, but it was funny because the whole class hid in his creepy closet,” she said laughing.
Throughout his time at MA, Norlander’s sense of humor has continued to shine. Bergstrom reflected on a funny story he remembers from working with Norlander.
“Every once in a while parents would bring treats and put them out in the faculty lounge, and word would get out and everybody would get excited,” said Bergstrom. “Well, Mr. Norlander runs a cultural institute, him and his wife, and the students come from Japan. Because of that, he’d often get ahold of Japanese snacks. Then he’d put an email out to everybody and say, ‘There’s treats down in the faculty lounge.’ Everybody would think, ‘Oh boy, donuts!’ Then they would go down there and find these tiny little seaweed snacks and he would get a kick out of that,” Bergstrom said, laughing.
Calvin also has many humorous stories to share about Norlander, with whom she has shared friendly banter for years. “I’ve almost described him as my nemesis, but not really….[Sometimes] I’ll walk away and I’m like, ‘Wait a second…Did Mark just zing me?’”
One of Calvin’s notable memories is of her first interaction with Norlander. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to turn on my computer,’ and he said, ‘Oh, it’s actually voice activated.’ And I said, ‘No it’s not.’ And he said, ‘Yes, yes it is actually.’ I didn’t know Mark, so I was like ‘No it’s not, where’s the on button?’ And he was like ‘See the speaker right there, just say ‘turn on.’ So I leaned forward and I said, ‘turn on,’ [but he was joking]…and then he just turned away!” she said, laughing.
Norlander also shared a funny story from one of his past French classes.
“When you teach a language, there’s always mistakes that kids make that they don’t even realize…but it sounds funny when they make it,” Norlander said. “A kid once, we were learning the passé composé with être, and he wanted to say ‘je suis né,’ (I was born) but instead of saying ‘je suis né’ he said ‘je suis nue,’ which means ‘I’m naked.’ Of course, when I explained that to him everyone had a good laugh about it and he turned bright red.”
Loved for his humor and ability to make people smile, Norlander is also extremely caring and kind.
“He’s just so tender,” said Latin teacher Johanna Beck. “He is. You wouldn’t necessarily call him a tender person until you know him, but he is.”
Calvin agrees. “He’s so caring, he has such a warm heart,” she said.
Bergstrom also talked about the support and care that he receives from Norlander.
“If there’s a critical issue, whether it’s health or whether it’s one of our kids, you know that you’ll be cared for and part of that care is getting the prayer support you need,” he said. “
That’s a serious, deep meaning that he has brought to my life.”
After retiring from MA, Norlander will continue to work other jobs. He and his wife are the Executive Directors of the St. Paul Intercultural Institute, which is an immersion program for Japanese and Chinese college students, and Norlander also teaches a French course at Bethel University in St. Paul. Norlander and his wife also plan to co-write a book together and do some volunteering activities. Though Norlander feels the time is right to leave Minnehaha, he will still dearly miss teaching and his students.
“[I’m going to miss] the students for sure. That’s what I’m going to miss the most. I like being around high school kids…usually,” he said with a smirk. “I’ll miss getting to see my daughter (Emily) every day and my grandkids in the morning before school starts.”
Norlander’s presence will be missed at MA by his colleagues and students. “We’re gonna miss him,” said Beck.
As three decades at Minnehaha draw to a close, decades filled with laughter, pranks, teaching and love, Norlander reflects on how he hopes he has impacted students.
“Since I’m the only French teacher, I get to have students for two, three or four years, whereas most other teachers only get students for a semester or a year. I hope that through some of those relationships, that has been helpful and that I have succeeded in trying to be Christ-like in how I am in my relationships with students.”