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 kindly.

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," he said.

"I am," I responded, wishing I wasn't.

"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 really works."

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 children—not 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 engagements.

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 communities.

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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