CBS TV movie tells story of Latter-day Saint and educational advocate Stacey Bess

By Blair Howell

Published: Tuesday, April 19 2011 3:30 a.m. MDT

“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.

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