This is a memoir of a teacher who worked at the elementary school housed in the Salt Lake City homeless shelter over a decade ago. That site has since been closed and the kids at the shelter now attend Washington Elementary, where I am a full-time upper grade teacher. At times I cringed at this woman's naivete and at her severe case of the Missionary Syndrome. "Saving" these kids was a theme of the whole book. Such arrogance. And yet. Many of the homeless students I've known need strong advocates and really do need to see more possibilities and alternative life pathways.
Some of the particular stories were so familiar that I could see my own students' eyes shining through her words. It was comforting to read about another teacher with such passion and unguarded love for these very innocent and beautiful kids. The next time I cross the arbitrary and senseless lines at Washington and wash a load of clothes or speak-up for a rough-edged kid's inner-goodness, I will defend my revolutionary actions with a line like "at least I don't take them home with me for months at a time, like Stacey Bess." (Not that I haven't been tempted, and not that I'd really share this vulnerable and illogical line of reasoning w/ my boss.)
Although there were lots of moments in her narrative where I wished she'd shown more humility and wisdom, I still admire her heart and courage. She employed a very compassionate tone when describing her students' parents and other homeless adults. I try to be compassionate but am far less patient when I watch adults repeatedly hurt their own kids. She explored the cliche "I learned more than the kids I was supposed to teach" with many heart-plucking stories. A question she asked in the middle of a particular situation, but which I want to pick-up and hold constantly is "How do we act humanely when working in the midst of extreme poverty?" Maybe by living openly with that question, my students and I will continue to create our own stories and Washington's population of homeless kids will find a safe refuge, if not salvation, within our sturdy red-brick walls.