Teacher to ‘cook and book’ through great love stories

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Karen Gerhart

GREENWOOD — Jasper native Karen (Schnellenberger) Gerhart will spend part of her summer traveling Europe exploring some of literature’s great love stories, thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment.

Gerhart, who teaches English at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, is one of 100 recipients of the Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellowships chosen from a pool of about 500 applicants. Created in 1987, the grant awards each recipient $12,000 for a project geared toward reigniting the passion for education. Gerhart’s project is titled “Eat Your Heart Out: Cooking and Booking My Way Through the World’s Great Love Stories.”

“I’m constantly teaching all this literature from Europe, but I’ve never been,” Gerhart said.

This summer, she’s going to change that. Her trip will begin in London, where she’ll explore the setting of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” which follows an orphan named Pip. While in London, Gerhart will learn about Dickens’ life and Victorian England, the era in which “Great Expectations” is set. She’ll also learn to make and serve an English high tea, which she hopes to incorporate into her lessons in Indiana.

“We could have a day where we learn to make scones, or something like that,” Gerhart said.

Gerhart’s trip to England will also include a visit to the Globe Theatre, famous for its association with William Shakespeare. She’ll also visit Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare.

From England, Gerhart will travel to Paris to explore “The Phantom of the Opera,” which was a book by Gaston Leroux before it became the famous musical. There, she’ll visit the Paris Opera House, believed to be Leroux’s inspiration for the story, and take a French cooking class.

After Paris, Gerhart will travel to Würzburg, Germany, to dig into her family history.

“I think that will be cool because I’m sort of following my family’s own love story, too,” she said.

Gerhart hopes to meet up with some of her father’s relatives in Germany and get acquainted with the limbs of her family tree that chose to remain in Germany when her ancestors left in the 1800s.

Gerhart will end her trip in Verona, Italy, the setting for Shakespeare’s famous romantic tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.”

Historians believe the two feuding families from the story — the Capulets and Montagues — did exist in Verona in the 13th century, Gerhart said, though Shakespeare likely took creative license with the story. Gerhart is looking forward to seeing where those families lived. She plans to visit Juliet’s House, a Gothic-style house with a stone balcony from the 1300s that has been converted into a museum. There, tiny love notes cover the courtyard walls due to a belief that if you leave a declaration of your love on the wall, you and your partner will be together forever.

There is also a team of volunteers, called Juliet’s secretaries, that answer the thousands of love letters sent to Juliet each year. Gerhart hopes to join those volunteers for a bit, but she’s still working out those details. Her stay in Verona will also include an Italian cooking class.

Although Gerhart plans to incorporate what she learns in the cooking classes to her lessons, that part of the project is more for her personal enjoyment. Cooking, she said, is something she’s always liked to do, but was never particularly good at. Now, she’ll have a chance to dig into that hobby.

Gerhart traces the path that led her to teaching, and ultimately to her upcoming European adventure, back to her years at Jasper High School. Growing up the daughter of Levi and Thelma Schnellenberger, Gerhart said she always wanted to be a teacher.

Then, at Jasper High School, she had teachers who shared their love for literature and writing, igniting that passion for her, as well. When she graduated in 1998, Gerhart knew she wanted to be an English teacher and pursued a degree in English education and speech and theater education from the University of Southern Indiana.

She now lives in Plainfield with her husband, Keith, whom she met while he was a broadcaster for the Dubois County Dragons, and their two sons, Andrew, 9, and Luke, 7.

Gerhart’s family plans to travel with her, though the grant money only covers Gerhart.

Looking ahead to her trip, Gerhart said there isn’t any one part she’s looking forward to the most.

“Germany will be special if we do get to meet the relatives from my dad’s side of the family,” she said. “But I think each spot will have its own parts that make it special.”




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