(ANN ARBOR, Mich.) - When Stacey Bess drove up to her first classroom as a newbie teacher, she thought she had taken a wrong turn. Before her was a rusted shed amidst a clutter of overturned railcars spilled out under a highway viaduct. Bess' first assignment was novel indeed - an experimental, pilot program for children staying in a nearby homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, Utah.
For the next eight years, Bess learned to love and care for her students in the most life-affirming and life-altering way, she told Head Start professionals in her opening keynote address at the 27th Annual Early Childhood Training Conference on March 8.
In telling her story, Bess described a world populated by colorful characters and others that would break her heart.
Among them was young Alex, routinely beaten by an older brother, who needed to discover that an adult would stand up for him. Sarah, the "scariest, meanest lady," who promised Bess her undying friendship when told she looked beautiful. A little girl with the unusual daily task of accompanying her mommy and daddy to the liquor store just so she could help them find their way home once they were intoxicated. And Utah Jazz basketball legend Carl Malone who taught Bess what her children really needed.
Accepting her invitation to visit with her students, the towering basketball player nixed her request to deliver a brief "stay in school" speech. Instead, he dropped his 6''9" body to the floor, playing the day away with 23 students climbing and tumbling over him in utter fun. "Do you always cry like that?" Malone asked, spotting Bess in tears as she watched her gleeful students. "Just when I'm learning life's most important lessons," she responded.
Bess later published her story in her book titled, "Nobody Don't Love Nobody," that followed with the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, "Beyond the Blackboard."
Audience members said they appreciated the narrative about working with the most vulnerable of the nation's children. "She reminded me of the importance of our role and that it's not just teaching or providing resources," one MHSA member wrote. "We touch the hearts of children and families. We can steer their life's path via what we do and say."
Bess said she wanted to leave her audience with the message that making a difference with students - regardless of one's role in an educational setting - isn't about impressive credentials but about loving completely and unconditionally.
"You are in the best business in the whole world," she told her audience. "You are in the kid business. And when we invest in the child, we uplift their families and we change our communities for the better.
"You are changing children's lives," she said.