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Paraplegic. Handicapped. Cripple. With words like these, no wonder it takes Mrs. Olinski 10 years to get back into the classroom.
Here's what we know about her, and it's actually not much: She's in a wheelchair. She's a teacher. Ten years ago, she was in a car accident that paralyzed her and killed her husband. And she's angry. Especially at little punk kids like Hamilton Knapp.
This anger is probably the most interesting thing about Mrs. Olinski, because otherwise she's pretty much what you expect from a lady who teaches sixth-graders. But watch what happens when she sees Margaret Draper and Izzy Diamondstein hug their grandkids, Ethan and Nadia: "her mental censors and her customary good manners started shutting down. She could not stand it another minute. She was on the verge of screaming with pain and rage" (5.30).
Imagine how you feel when you watch your friend play Angry Birds on his new iPad while you're stuck with a camera-less flip phone, and then multiply that by, oh, like a million. Mrs. O is jealous. She's jealous that Margaret has remarried. She's jealous that Izzy can "sprint" over to Nadia (5.26). She's jealous that Margaret can "[rest] her chin on the top of [Ethan's] head" (5.19) and that Izzy can "[kiss] the top of [Nadia's] head" (5.26).
But Mrs. O isn't just angry. Even in a wheelchair and widowed, she's kept her sense of humor. What she thinks is particularly funny is all these serious adults calling themselves "ed-you-kay-toars" (2.6) and talking about multiculturalism when they don't know an East Indian from a Apache—and when they don't understand that "cripples themselves are a diverse group, and some make jokes" (2.12).
Some like Mrs. O.
Mrs. O has a sense of humor unlike the other educators, and she's also different because she's okay with not always having the answers. In fact, not having answers is one of her key characteristics. Oh, she knows plenty. But she's also okay with not knowing everything about life.
Like, she's okay with choosing her team based on guts. That's actually the first thing we learn about her team, actually: "The fact was that Mrs. Olinski did not know how she had chosen her team, and the further fact was that she didn't know that she didn't know until she did know" (1.2). And then later, we find out that "something stronger than reason was having its way with her" (5.1), and then she "could not tell why" (5.3) she chose her crew. (Well, maybe because they chose each other.)
And that's the point. Unlike most of the other adults in the book, Mrs. Olinski is okay with letting kids make their own decisions. She doesn't have to be in control all the time—even though learning to be in control is the major change that her character undergoes.
See, you could argue that Mrs. O is the book's central character, even though she never specifically gets her own story. But notice that her story is the one that actually takes place in the book's narrative present, while the other stories mostly take place in the past.
That's a little complicated, so let's look at it again. Noah had his journey over the summer, at Century Village; so did Nadia. Ethan's journey took place at the beginning of the school year, before The Souls formed; and Julian—well, Julian's journey ended when he disembarked the ship. (We think.)
But Mrs. O's journey takes place over the course of the whole school year. On her first day, she's so nervous that even Ethan notices that her handwriting is "not round or smooth but nervous" ("Ethan".43). When Hamilton Knapp asks her to write higher on the blackboard, she can only manage "an embarrassed smile" (4.4).
As The Souls begin to win competitions, and the school and then the district and then the region rallies around Mrs. O, she becomes totally self-assured. Rather than letting Knapp crush her spirit, Mrs. O crushes his. And it is awesome.
She calls him up to the front of the room and asks him to explain how to burp. He can't. It's totally humiliating, and it gets worse when she slowly and distinctively announces that "If I choose to, I can explain how to belch on command, and I could teach you. If I so choose. […] But I don't" (6.22).
You guys, her nostrils even flare when she says this. It seriously gives us chills. And actually, it kinda makes us feel like we're in trouble.
The point is, it's The Souls who have helped Mrs. Olinski on this journey from nervous and sad to totally boss. And she goes through a few other character changes, too. She goes from tense and angry to "relaxed" and not "self-conscious" (8.19). She goes from "timid" (2.5) to courageous. She goes from lonely to beloved.
Okay, so we know that The Souls have helped her. But there's someone else keeping a (slightly creepy) eye on her: Mr. Singh, who's playing the role of the Inscrutable Oriental. (Again, we love this book—but it's treading awfully close to some familiar stereotypes here.) Somehow, Mr. Singh knows everything about her, from the pain and rage she's keeping inside to the fact that she almost chose Hamilton Knapp instead of Julian.
We'd be tempted to tell him to mind his own business, except that, well, he's right. He's also the one who puts it all together for her, telling her about The Souls and explaining that each of them has been on a journey—Mrs. Olinski especially. Finally, he announces that she "must put down anchor, look around, [and] enjoy this port of call" (11.7).
In other words, it's time to stop preparing for life/ Academic Bowl. Now she has to live again. Thanks to The Souls, she can.
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