Bob Dylan’s English Teacher
“Walking through the snow with half a shoe, searching for William Shakespeare.” - A Six Word Autobiography by B.J. Rolfzen.
Bob Dylan grew up as Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota – 30 minutes away from Grand Rapids. B.J. Rolfzen was his high school English teacher for 2 years. I went on a very special visit to B.J. Rolfzen’s home in Hibbing with Heidi Holtan of KAXE. (I brought the muffins. Heidi brought the recording equipment). B.J. is well known around town for his long career as an English teacher and his special connection to Bob. He speaks annually at “Dylan Days,” a local event to celebrate the life of the musician.
B.J. remembers one of the rare visits Bob made to Hibbing several years ago. “I remember distinctly. He told me, You’ve taught me everything I know.’ I dispute that. I’ve taught him half of what he knows.”
“When I was young, I was a bum,” he says. “I lived in the Great Depression. I slept in a bed of straw with my three brothers. It smelled like urine. There was no heat,” B.J. says with the same slow rhythm that he uses to read his favorite poems.
“My life changed overnight when I joined the Navy,” he continues. “I found out that I had to know something if I was going to survive in this world. So I started reading and I’ve been reading ever since.” B.J. went to college on the GI Bill and eventually got his Masters in English.
There’s a pamphlet in front of B.J.’s breakfast plate with poems from a symposium he read at in Minneapolis. “Are these your favorite poems?” I ask.
“Not all of them, but you have to cut it off somewhere.” He reads John Donne and then Alfred Lord Tennyson, reciting The Eagle: “And like a thunderbolt he falls,” he finishes with prolonged cadence.
B.J. believes in work. “Don’t be afraid to work. It’s not easy, but you have to work.” He repeats the word “work” several more times. “You work until the job is done,” BJ says, letting the done resonate at the roof of his mouth like a gong.
He met his wife, Leona, on a Greyhound bus going to St. Cloud. He stood next to her seat in the aisle. They have been married for 60 years and have 4 children. Leona has set up a Bob Dylan museum in the basement next to the laundry room. There are Bob Dylan records, a Bob Dylan pillow, and a photograph of Echo Helstrom (Bob’s high school girlfriend). Everything is in a brown plastic frame.
B.J. describes Bob in his class. “Robert was shy. I can see him coming through the door of classroom 204. I remember it distinctly because he was always doing the same thing. He always came in to class alone. He always sat in the same chair, three seats from the door in the first row. Right under my nose for two years.”
B.J.’s basement office is the warmest room in the house. The walls are cinderblock painted in pistachio green. When we first sit down, he plays “With God on Our Side,” closing his eyes, letting his reading glasses slide to the tip of his nose. He taps his socked feet on the carpet.
“Did you have any expectations for what Bob Dylan would do with his life?” I ask.
“I have expectations for all my students, because they all worked hard. It is impossible to predict what will happen to people. Human nature is so unpredictable and that is the pleasure of being human because you never know what is going to happen to you. You might become a Bob Dylan. You might become a Shakespeare. You might become a B.J. Rolfzen.”
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