Shelter in the Heart
FIVE YEARS AGO, SALT LAKE CITY schoolteacher Stacey Bess had to undergo surgery for thyroid cancer. A few days before she went to the hospital, one of her students gave her a teddy bear. “His name is Bear, and he’s my friend,” said Dana, 9. “It helps to hold him tight when you are afraid. It really works, I promise.”
Only later, after her operation succeeded, did Bess learn that Dana had once been locked for days in a dark basement without food or water—and that when the sheriff rescued her, she had been clutching the same dirty bear she would part with for her favorite teacher to “help the hurt go away.”
“These are not your typical kids,” says Bess, 31. Nor is Bess your typical teacher. For nearly six years she has been the principal instructor at the School with No Name in Salt Lake City, one of about a dozen schools in the U.S. specifically for the homeless.
Founded in 1984, the school is attached to Salt Lake City’s family shelter in a seedy part of town. Derelicts stroll nearby; the occasional drug deal takes place on the corner. But for homeless kids who have the option of being bused to the regular public schools, the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade School with No Name is a haven. “I have one boy in my class who has only one set of clothes,” says Bess. “Can you imagine him wearing them to a public school every day? Here he knows he will be accepted, no matter what.”
Bess has captured dozens of poignant vignettes like this one in her new book, Nobody Don’t Love Nobody: Lessons on Love from the School with No Name (Gold Leaf Press). She tells about such kids as the 12-year-old boy forced to run drugs by his parents, the withdrawn 5-year-old boy reared in a satanic cult, and the girl who dreamed of becoming an actress but instead became pregnant at 16.
What Bess offers the 400 children who pass through her school each year is nurturing and a safe harbor amid the chaos of their lives. Arithmetic, for instance, is sweetened by adding and subtracting M & Ms. For completing homework assignments, she gives “positive points,” which the kids can trade for toys, cassette tapes, curling irons. And if they get tired, they can crash on the pillow bed in the corner. Explains Bess: “It’s hard to teach a child who was up all night in a tiny room because his mom and dad were fighting.”
She also has them keep journals. “Dear Diary,” one boy writes, “today we had show and tell. I didn’t have anything to show. We put our dog to sleep. I thought we were supposed to learn our phone number here. Do we have one? I like it here. We learned about shapes and colors. Dad’ll be proud. Can we call him at the prison tonight?”
Bess herself learned the power of compassion from her mother, Susan, a former secretary in a Salt Lake City juvenile detention center who would occasionally bring kids home in emergencies (her stepfather, Roger Coon, is a self-employed fund-raiser). “Sometimes she would tuck a child into bed with me late at night,” says Bess.
Still, as a 1987 graduate of the University of Utah, Bess had expected to teach in an ordinary classroom “with neat rows of desks and a flag in the corner.” She was stunned when she was detailed to the School with No Name, which then was housed in a corrugated metal shed. “My first week I cried every night,” says Bess. But she couldn’t bring herself to quit. “I stayed because I realized I was giving these kids their childhood. In their sad little lives, it was so rare to just be a kid. I fell in love with those kids. I couldn’t let go.”
Yet two years ago, Bess, who has been married since 1980 to real estate appraiser Gregory Bess, 32, almost did let go, after giving birth to her third child, McKenzie (her others are Nichole, 13, and Brandon, 9). “I felt it was time to be a mother,” she says. Once again, though, she couldn’t get the students out of her mind, so she brought McKenzie to school with her. “I strapped her to my chest,” says Bess, “and the kids looked on with awe. There was a real peace to the room.”
Stacey Bess’s kids do not soon forget her. A few weeks ago, Matthew McLane, 12—who had been to the School with No Name four years earlier—stopped by with Frank, his father. On the way out, Frank let on that he was unemployed and living in a tent while waiting for room in the shelter. Bess stayed up all night agonizing over what to do—she couldn’t bear the thought of Matthew in a leaky tent. She was about to leave on a tour to promote her book. So she got her husband’s parents to take the boy in.
Says Matthew, who enjoyed his respite with Bess’s in-laws: “Our school doesn’t have a name. But my dad has one for Stacey. Angel.”
CATHY FREE in Sail Lake City