Stacey Bess BS'87
by Carin Joy Condon
Stacey Bess BS'87 was 23 years
old and just a month out of college when she took a job teaching children at
Salt Lake City's homeless shelter. On a cold January day she was driving slowly
among warehouses and railroad tracks looking for the building. She finally stopped
her car, unsure where she was and very scared.
When she heard a "tap, tap, tap"
on her window and saw a wild-looking man with uncombed hair, she almost let
out a scream. Bess writes about what happened next:
"You lost, ma'am?" the man asked
Disarmed by his courtesy, I responded,
"I think so."
"Where ya trying to get to?" the
man asked. Extending a shaky hand, I gave him the address. He smiled, a toothless
smile with bits of breakfast clinging in his beard, but he spoke with a warmth
I will never forget.
"I'll bet you're the new teacher,"
"I am," I responded, wishing I
"You got the right place. I'm Joe,"
he declared while he held open my door for me. Then he proceeded to give me
a crash course on street survival: Don't talk to nobody you don't know. Don't
forget to lock your car. Don't look afraid. I had broken every rule so far,
especially the last one.
Joe led her to a group of adults
huddled around a fire they had built under a viaduct on Salt Lake City's near
west side. Some of them were parents of children she would be teaching. He introduced
Bess as the new teacher and the others began firing questions at her. They laughed
when Bess admitted that this was her first real job. A woman sitting on the
curb said, "Well, honey, you ain't got nowhere to go but up."
It was an apt prediction of what
it would be like to teach 25 students ranging across all 13 grades crammed into
a 12' by 12' room in a shed. Each time someone needed to reach one of the battered
books on the cinder block shelves, the whole back row had to stand up and move
their desks. Bess would walk around in the morning knocking on parked cars to
round up her students for class. She didn't know then that she would come to
regard this bottom-of-the-barrel job as the one place in the world she was meant
to be. "At first I cried every night. Now I would be sick if I had to leave,"
Bess says. "The children give much more to me than I give to them."
Take the case of nine-year-old
Dana. When she first came to the school she wouldn't talk or even look up at
Bess. Slowly she gained enough confidence to talk a little. Then Bess had to
go into the hospital for radiation treatments as a follow-up for thyroid cancer.
Dana lingered after school with her hands hidden behind her back. She asked
Bess if she were scared and Bess admitted she was a little. Then Dana said,
"I have something that will help you." She placed a black-and-white stuffed
bear on the teacher's desk and stepped back. "He'll go with you to the hospital.
It helps to hold him tight when you're afraid," Dana explained, promising, "It
Bess' eyes filled with tears and
all she could manage to say was "Thank you, Dana." Later she asked the shelter
staff about Dana's history. The little girl lives with her father now but custody
had been awarded originally to the mother. A neighbor had called the police
because she had not seen Dana or her little brother for several days. The mother
and her boyfriend claimed the children were away visiting an aunt. But the police
persisted and found the two children locked in the cellar. They were crouched
on a damp, dirt floor in an unlit, windowless room. They had no food or water
and were very weak. With one hand Dana was holding her younger brother, and
in the other hand she clutched a dirty, black-and-white bear.
Such heart-rending stories are
not uncommon in Bess' job. One day she was talking to her class about the importance
of friendship and about showing people we love them by the things we say. A
boy replied matter-of-factly, "You know, teacher, nobody don't love nobody."
That searing phrase haunted Bess
and she choose it for the title of her book about the lives of the shelter children
and her experiences teaching them. She felt she had gained so much from the
children, she wanted more people to have a chance to learn what she had learned:
that each of us is merely the product of what was given to us as childrennot
the things, but the time, experience, and love.
Nobody Don't Love Nobody
is sickening and inspiring. "It has really spurred incredible interest," says
Bess who has become a national figure, traveling all over the country advocating
the educational rights of impoverished children. She has appeared on the Phil
Donohue Show and has been featured in People magazine. Now in her ninth
year at the shelter, Bess divides her time between teaching and her speaking
In 1995, she was one of four recipients
of the National Jefferson Award, presented annually by the American Institute
for Public Service (New Castle, Del.). The other three recipients were former
first lady Barbara Bush, retired Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and philanthropist
Walter Annenberg. Bess is negotiating with the executive producer of Schindler's
List for the possible sale of the movie rights to her book.
All this publicity has opened many
doors to Bess, and when she travels around the country she tells people "Don't
send your money to me. You have children in your own neighborhoods who need
to be a part of a community." Her book includes the names of organizations that
people can contact to find out how they can help persons in need in their own
Bess says, "I believe we're a very
caring society still, but we don't know how to serve. My purpose is to teach
people to serve. Not to teach them that what I do is so great. If we spend our
time judging we may lose the opportunity to serve."
(Note: The homeless shelter moved
into larger quarters after Bess' first two years of teaching. Now the school
is in a bigger room and is better supplied. One full-time and two part-time
teachers teach about 40 students. But there are still many needs: adult volunteers
in the morning to work one-on-one with children; shoe store gift certificates;
sweat clothes in all sizes so the children will have warm clothing; and individual
containers of juice. For more information call Carey at 531-1507.)
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