On Dec. 11, 2022, the Franklin community lost an integral member. Karen Polis passed away at the age of 52, surrounded by family and friends.
From 1995 to 2021, Polis taught a multitude of subjects at Franklin: History, Psychology, English, and Theater. Students remember her classes as engaging: She valued hands-on activities and lessons with real-life connections. Kate Moore, a former Franklin teacher and close friend of Polis’s, remembers that “[Polis] was one of the most fun and creative teachers in terms of being able to make a curriculum relatable to kids.” Her annual “Hooverville” project, where her students built a model “Hooverville” completely out of found materials to learn about the Great Depression, was always a hit. Some students recalled her psychology lessons in which the class would watch a movie and break it apart, applying it to the topics they were learning in class. Many remember her for being the emcee at all-school assemblies, her powerful presence and confidence aiding her in convincing 2,000 students to be quiet, or alternatively, to be loud. She was also the leader of the state’s only all-female “Chain Gang” at the time, a group at football games that is tasked with moving the “down” marker up and down the field.
A common pattern among all memories of Polis is how funny she was. What some may not know is that Polis wasn’t just funny in everyday life; she also participated in comedy improv outside of school hours. She was part of a group called “ComedySportz,” and those who saw her perform spoke to how hilarious she was. Franklin teacher Dana Miller remarks, “Oh my goodness. She was so funny.” Dana Vinger, another Franklin teacher, remembers that “[Polis] was really good at [comedy]. She would take these risks outside of school, I think she just really loved life. You know, genuinely loved life, even when things were really hard.”
Portia Hall, Franklin teacher, remembers how adamant Polis was about the importance of teachers taking care of their mental health. “There’s been times, especially before I had kids, where I would just spend all of my time at school, but [Polis] was really good at saying ‘nope, you need to go home.’” She was a strong proponent of work-life balance, and always made sure teachers didn’t burn out by spending hours and hours at the school. “She was always encouraging us to make sure that we took a personal day if we weren’t feeling well or needed a mental health day,” says Hall. Moore adds, “when people [went] through hard times as teachers, she was always that person who was there to give—through the resources that she knew—but also just to crack a joke and make it funny, and she never lost that through years of cancer.”
Her everyday support of her students was evident in her lessons, but her commitment to the school extended far beyond her teaching. “It was that same kind of commitment that she had to the school and to the community and to our students she also had to her fellow teachers,” said Moore. Polis was the school’s Head Union Representative from 2014 to 2021. In that position, she fought hard for teachers: “She was really trying to make sure that teachers’ rights were being protected and she was really good at that as well,” remembers Hall. She always stood up for others, all while remaining true to herself. “Polis did Polis,” says Vinger. “She was very much a unique individual. And, she would stand up for what she thought to be right. She would stand up for students,” she continues, “some people don’t always have the courage to do that. And she did.”
Polis’s personal life wasn’t always easy. At times, she struggled with mental illness and took a year off to focus on her health. “She went about her daily life with such grace, humor, wit, and intelligence. She didn’t let it get her down. She suffered, but she really overcame a lot through her personality. I really admired her for that,” says Miller.
But her commitment to her friends and to the Franklin community remained unwavering throughout all of her struggles. Franklin teacher Nayibe Tovar recounts a time when she was in the hospital recovering from a surgery and realized Polis was in the room right next to her. She describes how Polis’s energy and positivity made the difficult time so much easier, and how they would talk and laugh throughout the night. Tovar even recalls a time when she needed to alert the nurses, but couldn’t reach the help button, so Polis, even amidst all of her physical pain, got out of her bed to get help.
In her last days, Polis’s bright spirit never waned. “We had fun up until the last Sunday morning, [when] one of her best friends from college and I were in her room with her playing 80s dance, holding her hands and dancing around,” said Moore. “And she was still aware and responding to the music right up until the time she started slipping away from us. So she was bringing the fun until the very end.”
Her wicked sense of humor, powerful voice, and fierce commitment to the Franklin community will be missed beyond measure. Rest in peace, Karen.
Please join us in the Franklin auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 28, at 3pm, for our memorial to Karen.