Fifty years ago this week, I signed my first contract to teach in an Ohio public school; 11th grade English. I was twenty-two years old and naively assumed my students would love English as much as I did. The second day of school I was proved wrong. I passed out the textbooks and told the class to turn to page 25. Then I noticed the Caucasian, young man with curly red hair, holding his text upside down. “Mr. Simmons, please turn your book upright so you can read.”
Much to my horror, his face turned bright red. He stammered, “Sorry.” And thus began my relationship with 16-year-old Stanley Simmons who was almost illiterate–he couldn’t spell his last name. Stan was the best he could do. I met with Stan every day in the library during our lunch period trying to teach him to read and write. In early October he asked, “Do you know what it’s like to die?”
“No, Stan, I don’t. Why are you asking?”
“I’m just wondering.” I was so shaken by his question, I went to the guidance counselor and asked him to meet with Stan. The counselor supposedly did and had no cause for concern, nor intervention. Yet, Stan continued to talk to me about death. In early November it got worse. Stan announced: ” Don’t make me write today. I can’t.”
“And why would that be?” With that, he flopped his very bruised, swollen right arm across the library table. “Stan, what happened? Please talk to me.”
“I wanted to find out what a car felt like. I put my arm on the driveway and had my brother drive over it with a car.” I fought for words.
“Let’s go to the school nurse and have your arm checked.”
Stan’s reply, “No, I’m ok; I just can’t write.”
Fifty years ago, teachers had to follow the rigid line and staff, which thankfully changed over time. I begged the counselor to see Stan.
Holiday break, and I went to my parents’ house for two-week hiatus. My mom found me outside shoveling snow from the sidewalk, ‘Sue, Dr. Jackson wants to speak with you.” My direct supervisor? Dr. Jackson, a formidable, no-nonsense, superlative educator? Whoa, why? I knew I turned in my grades.
We exchanged greetings of the season, “Sue, Stan Simmons committed suicide last night. He hung himself by an electric cord in the closet.” I was devastated! I was twenty-two- years old; teenagers didn’t do that. I grieved. After school resumed in January, I was sitting in the teachers’ room grading papers, and the counselor walked in.
“Hey, Sue, did you hear about Stan?” I nodded. “You know he was one student I couldn’t get interested in.” His statement became my life-changing moment. I earned both a Master’s degree and doctorate in educational leadership. I have been a high school principal, school superintendent, associate superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education, and an adjunct university professor. I volunteered, I was co-president of United Parent Council, and in 2000 was elected to a school board.
Many folk assume I’ve received compensation for my twenty-year service–not. School board members in Arizona receive no monetary benefit, just the joy of watching a play, touring an art exhibit, attending numerous sporting events, handing a diploma to a first-generation high graduate, and reading to a class. Priceless. Further, as a public education advocate, I’ve also put my money where my mouth is. And no, you’ll not find my name among the gifts and donations section of a board meeting. Anonymous is fine with me.
In closing, Stan Simmons is NOT a figment of my imagination. It is a true story, which about I rarely talk–too painful. I’ve been a blogger since June 2013, under a private domain name which I own and with a service (Word Press), which I pay. I’ve published two novels, three English reference books, and the story of my daughter’s cancer nightmare. I’m an English major; I’ve never taken anyone’s words as my own without citation.
But most importantly, I do for our public school children what I could not do for Stan.