Parents routinely place the lives of their children in the hands of teachers. It's much more rare that a student would place the life of her child into the hands of the teacher - permanently.
That's the story, however, of Jerilyn Wakefield, a teacher in Tooele Junior High School. She is the adoptive mother of Jeffrey Leonard, now 7, the offspring of one of her students. The young mother, 14, unwed and beset by problems beyond her ability, asked one of the few people in her life that she trusted to provide a home for her baby.The troubled adolescent told her, "I always thought it would be nice to have you for a mother," Wakefield recounts in a personal story of the unusual adoption. She has maintained contact with the young woman and kept her apprised of the little boy's progress, she said, but the child is definitely her own. The natural mother simply wasn't ready for the demands of parenting and has a somewhat detached interest.
As a single woman, Wakefield had her own concerns about taking on the total responsibility for a child, but after seven years, she and her special "gift" child have become a family unit of a special kind.
One of the secrets to Wakefield's success, said Tooele Superintendent Michael Jacobsen, is that she becomes a friend as well as a teacher. "Her love and concern for students take many forms. She has given students her services as a barber and grooming counselor. She has altered or sewn clothing and given it to students."
Respecting the value of each child with whom she has contact is one of Wakefield's special strengths as a teacher, said some parents who appreciated her concern for the students in their family.
"She shares a mutual respect with each student and she realizes that they come from homes with varying values and ideas," said George and Mary Ann Mantes, who supported her nomination as Tooele District's Teacher of the Year. "She encourages them and helps their self-esteem as she teaches them to get along with others."
At one time in her life, Wakefield thought a career in the FBI sounded attractive - or the excitement of medical research. But in teaching she found the niche that has called on the best she had to offer.
"I've never been sorry," she said. "But the good feelings often come after the fact. Most often, students don't thank you at the time. Then, they see you somewhere later and say, `I hope my kids have you,' and then it's worth it."
She recalls one particularly troublesome young man who was in hot water all the time. He never expressed any appreciation for the encouragement she gave him, but years later, when he had an accident and was in the hospital, he told one of Wakefield's friends who worked at the hospital that "Miss Wakefield is the only reason I'm not in jail."
"There's no other job that makes you feel so good," she said.
If she had one wish, it would be that all parents provide the kind of support that helps children succeed in school.
"Some kids would make it all right even if I slept through it. Others I can help. Some just can't be reached," she said. "We're getting more of them and they're more violent. If kids feel good about themselves, I've got it made as a teacher."
The advent of computers in the classroom has been both a blessing and a concern for teachers, said Wakefield, who supervises a computer-based pre-vocational business program for her students.
With the computer doing much of the instruction, the teacher is relegated to "policing" the classroom, she said. That isn't as satisfying as the direct involvement of teacher with student, she said, but she finds other ways to enhance and strengthen the special quality of a teacher-student relationship.