Willis is back!

English teacher Jan Willis is back teaching at Oak Park High School.

English teacher Jan Kelly Willis and her traveling gnome, Herman, have returned to Oak Park High School where Willis will resume teaching after spending a semester abroad in England and Germany.

Willis has taught at OPHS for 20 years and is currently teaching sophomore English CP and Honors and Women’s Literature. Willis and her husband, Tim, took a trip at the end of the 2016-17 school year while her husband taught undergraduate sophomore and junior Pepperdine students in London during a one-month summer program run by London Biblical Sites. In May 2017, the Pepperdine still needed a faculty family to go to Heidelberg, Germany, for the fall semester, so the Willis’s agreed to take the position. Faculty families are the family members of teachers who live in the same house with all of the students and interact with them on a daily basis.

Though Willis and her husband only stayed in Heidelberg for the duration of the 2017 fall semester, it was not their first time visiting the town.

“We’ve actually lived there two other years with our kids, so we’re familiar with the surroundings and the people, and we have some friends there,” Willis said.

During their time in Heidelberg, Willis and her husband went on field trips with the the Pepperdine students.

“There was a group of 32 [students] in London and 52 in Heidelberg,” Willis said. “In July, it was the 500th anniversary of [German professor] Martin Luther where there was that split between Catholic and Protestant churches, so we went up to that area in East Germany. Then we went to Berlin and learned some 20th century history in the fabulous museums they have.”

As well as visiting areas in London and Germany, Willis said she has also traveled to countries in southernmost Europe.

“[During our time] in London, we went to Greece –– to Athens, Corinth and Aegina. We went to all of these places and looked at the ancient civilizations,” Willis said.

Spending many hours among German culture has allowed her to pick up bits and pieces of the country’s native language.

“When we lived in Germany for those two years, my kids went to a public school and I took language classes,” Willis said. “I mean, it’s passable –– not great, at all, but I can make my wishes known to people. You really need to be there and speak it all the time to become completely fluent.”

Willis’s traveling companion, besides her husband, was her gnome, Herman. She bought him from a Salvation Army store in Newbury Park earlier this year after being inspired by the French movie “Amélie,” and he has since taken up residence in her purse during her travels.

“Herman has been all over the place. He’s been to ten different countries this year in the last six months or so,” Willis said. “I take him in my purse as long as I remember to take him. We’ve taken a lot of pictures with him all over the place. Sometimes other people have taken pictures of him with their cameras as well, so he became very popular.”

Willis said that Herman has taken pictures in a variety of different settings.

“You can be really creative –– I have him in all kinds of places, from C.S. Lewis’ ashtray to taking him mountain climbing, in places in London libraries next to books. Sometimes I would go into stores and set up scenes, like during Christmas-time I’d go to a store and set up a tree and essentially create a scene, then put him in the picture,” Willis said.

Though Willis, Herman and her husband have been gone for a semester, she said she has noticed that aside from a couple changes, Oak Park is the same as when she left.

“Well, the solar panels went up, but besides some classes getting some new desks and things it seems kind of the same. I mean really, the fall semester goes by so fast and it’s testing my stamina, coming back to teach full time. Staying up in a classroom all day every day is tiring, but I’m building back up,” Willis said. “But Oak Park seems the same, and I really love that.”