“No greater responsibility can rest upon any man (or woman) than to be a teacher of God’s children” (President David O. McKay, Conference Report, October 1916, page 57).
SALT LAKE CITY — Stacey Bess' early-age fascination with books came with a firm knowledge of her life’s work.
“I remember as a child that I loved the smell of textbooks,” she said. “I have always known that built within me there has been a desire to do anything that had anything to do with learning.”
That fervent dedication is now profiled in Hallmark Hall of Fame’s “Beyond the Blackboard” TV movie, premiering Sunday, April 24, on CBS. While it’s a retelling of the LDS woman’s first year as a teacher, the movie is so much more.
The 1987 school year was already underway when she completed her teacher certification, so job options were limited. After the first three teachers had quit at one school, the 24-year-old accepted the opening in the Salt Lake City School District.
The job was in a metal Quonset hut under a freeway viaduct, and her pupils were homeless. The filthy, makeshift classroom had no books, no desks, no principal and no custodian. Fittingly, it became known as the School with No Name.
With her heart broken over the apparent hopelessness of the situation and challenged to teach multiple grade levels, she initially couldn’t wait for her six-month contract to expire. She longed for an orderly classroom in a clean neighborhood with motivated, smiling children.
But she persevered and overcame her own fears.
“You have no idea how many times I dropped to my knees for help,” she said. “I was tired. I was misunderstood, and clearly the task was not easy.”
Bess began to feel a “strong fire” within her and a presence within the classroom, and she was not alone in her feelings.
“It just delighted me to no end when I had visitors and volunteers come to the classroom and tell me they felt a unique spirit in the room that was lost when they left the room,” she said. “I knew the Lord was there. Children are precious, and we have a great responsibility to serve and teach them.”
Struggling to gain her students’ trust, her nonjudgmental compassion grew into unconditional love — and lasting relationships were formed with the ever-changing array of students she individually influenced over the 11 years she taught there. And she established one of the nation’s first public schools in a homeless shelter.
Although Bess had written a book on her experiences, when the movie was presented, she was reluctant. “It’s not easy for me to put myself out there,” she says. “It was painful to consider turning over my story to someone else and just hoping that they would get it right.”
Consulting with her mother and husband, she realized, “If I have to do this and at least one person becomes more caring and reaches out to a child in need, and there’s an opportunity to influence millions and millions of people, then it was something I knew I couldn’t pass up.
“We need to motivate others to do Christlike things,” she says. “Can you imagine a world where everyone felt a responsibility for a child?”
“Beyond the Blackboard” is based on Bess’ “Nobody Don’t Love Nobody,” published in 1994, which one reviewer called “a beautifully written and honest collection of deeply touching stories.”
The well-received book compiles the education advocate’s teaching experiences, while showing that today’s homeless are often composed of very caring families.
Following one significant award after the book was published, Bess received a letter with the LDS Church Office Building as its return address. “My husband joked that it was a letter to excommunicate me,” she laughs. “But President Gordon B. Hinckley had written to congratulate me on what I was doing. He told me I was doing what the Lord had asked me to do.”
It’s a letter Bess has read over many times, especially when she second-guesses the time she splits between her career demands and her family responsibilities: “I know that my family has been highly blessed through what I have been able to do,” she explains.
Bess firmly believes opportunities abound for everyone to serve children.
“The number one problem is that people say they don’t have the skills or the training, but that is the wrong response,” she said. “I would like to see every adult reading to children. There are hundreds and hundreds of children who are struggling, and reading is critical.
“There are many opportunities. All it takes is a desire to serve, and the more you serve, the more you will learn how to serve.”
Her recommendation is a simple one: “Don’t be afraid. Step outside your comfort zone.”
Her zeal to inspire service has impacted many others, including the actors who portrayed the characters in the movie.
“‘Beyond the Blackboard’ reminds us that sometimes it doesn’t take an awful lot to make a huge difference in other people’s lives,” said Treat Williams (known for his role in “Everwood”), who plays a superintendent Bess had to persuade for school resources. “In this economy, with so many people having a rough time, I think the message in this film is going to resonate. We’re all in this together, and each person is capable of making a positive difference in the lives of others.”
Emily VanCamp (“Brothers & Sisters”), who plays Bess in the movie, said, “I have such a tremendous amount of admiration for Stacey Bess and for the things she’s done. I love the combination she has of vulnerability and empathy, matched with tremendous strength.”
“The important thing I’ve learned, and I’ve learned this over and over again, is the difference one person can make,” Bess said. “I’ve seen what can happen when one person reaches out to make a difference in the lives of children. I wanted to stay (at the School with No Name), so I could show that somebody does love somebody, just as the Savior would have.”
Bess plans a follow-up book with stories of service that individuals can submit on her website, staceybess.com. She also gives resources for information about service opportunities.
Blair Howell is a freelance editor and writer.