My 13-year-old twins differ on many things. My son’s favorite meal is a burger. My daughter prefers sushi. When my son rushes to the computer, he’s checking on the Falcons. When my daughter goes online, she’s checking Facebook He’s a math guy. She’s a language arts kid.
But there is one thing on which they agree: Stacey Daniel was their favorite teacher of all time at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur. And they were not alone in that. Hundreds of students in Decatur considered Ms. Daniel their most beloved teacher.
And they told us why last night — at a memorial service for Stacey Daniel, who died last week at the age 34 of heart-related problems.
Held at the high school, the two-hour program drew about 800 people. (Yes, I counted — that is one of the carryovers of years of covering rallies and meetings and having editors bark, “How many people were there?”) Here is the AJC obituary.
If anyone doubts the power of a teacher, even a teacher in the classroom for only 10 years, to change lives, the testimony last night would have shattered that view. Twenty-two students and colleagues shared memories of Ms. Daniel. Five poets celebrated her in verse. The dance team honored her in movement. Choir members commemorated her in song.
And everyone cried.
The stories were extraordinary. Students talked about transferring to Renfroe Middle School midyear and feeling lost and alone until they met Ms. Daniel, who made sure they were included. Kids grief stricken from a death in their families were treated to Hawks games. She took girls out for ice cream and to the mall. Asked to send work to a student housebound with a broken leg, Ms. Daniel showed up in person with balloons, food and good books. And she kept visiting. One college student recalled a kind phone call from Ms. Daniel after her grandmother died.
Ms. Daniel handed out smiles and hugs in daily and generous doses.
Often times on this blog, posters complain about how overpaid public school teachers are. Ms. Daniel probably lost money every year she taught because of how much she spent on students in after-school and weekend activities.
Shy students said they were swept up by Ms. Daniel’s enthusiasm and her conviction that they could write poetry, read it aloud in in the annual Poetry Slam that she created and win a prize. A dozen students talked about how her encouragement and monitoring kept them on track. Several mentioned looking out from the basketball court or the stage and seeing Ms. Daniel beaming with pride in the crowd. She was the reason, they said, that they persisted with basketball or auditioned for the play. Several students called her their “guardian angel.”
A boy who admitted to creating ruckuses said Ms. Daniel sat him down and told him he was better than that, that he was capable of greatness. She repeated that message so often that he began to believe and act on it. Another boy she helped recalled how Ms. Daniel told him at the year’s end that if she ever had a son, she hoped he would be just like him.
Everyone cited her contagious joy. She joined in everything, including the teacher-student basketball game despite her lack of ball handling skills. When Ms. Daniel finally made a basket last year, it was in the wrong goal. Her fans — that was everyone in the stands — cheered anyway.
I had an inkling of how unique Ms. Daniel was when my son came home with a book he had been wanting to read for weeks, but could never get to the library soon enough to check it out before someone else grabbed it. The book was brand new. “How did you get that?” I asked. “Ms. Daniel bought it for me to read and then give to the library,” he told me. And she did that again and again until he had read the entire series.
My daughter has always been an aspiring writer, but Ms. Daniel motivated her to do what writers must do every day: Write and rewrite. “Ms. Daniel wants me to enter this story in a contest,” my daughter would tell me and then disappear to her room for an hour to rework the piece.
Her colleagues talked about how Ms. Daniel prodded them to stay in graduate school or find time to connect with friends. They recalled her habit of leaving small gifts on their desks, fragrant cinnamon almonds, books for their students or her mother’s famous pound cake. Ms. Daniel baked birthday cakes for her colleagues.
I have known many fabulous teachers, but often they related best to certain students. There were teachers who connected with high achievers and others who could perform magic with struggling students.
What was amazing about Ms. Daniel was her effectiveness in relating to every variety, the straight A students, the indifferent ones and those at risk for failure. I cannot explain how she did it, but the students themselves talked about her ability to make them feel noticed, heard and understood. Ms. Daniel was renowned for wearing her high heels, and students said they would sit up straight when they heard that “click, clack” down the hallway, announcing her impending arrival in the classroom. Her homeroom always had a dozen extra students in the morning, kids who wanted to talk to her about their problems.
Many described her as a second mother. Her nickname was “Mama” Daniel, and she ended every class with “Bye, Babies.” On Fridays, she would dismiss them for the weekend with the admonishment, “No breaks. no bruises, no sprains.”
Somewhere, early in her career or, perhaps, instinctively, Ms. Daniel realized that, as one speaker said, “Children don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.”
Her life was her students. Ms. Daniel loved them, and they loved her. As I listened last night to all the young people talk about how Ms. Daniel enhanced their lives, I thought few of us can ever hope to leave such a legacy, to impact so many people in such positive and significant ways.
So, to the family of Stacey Daniel, my deepest sympathies. To her students, honor her memory by living up to her expectations.
And to all the teachers doing their best for their students under increasingly difficult conditions, thank you.
People have asked me if there is a scholarship fund set up in Ms. Daniel’s name. There is not, but there is this: The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, please send donations to a fund honoring the memory of Stacey Daniel through the Decatur Education Foundation. The donations will be used to honor the legacy and life’s work of Ms. Daniel, and specific details will be determined in the coming weeks.
Checks may be made payable to:
Decatur Education Foundation
200 Nelson Ferry Road, Suite B
Decatur, Georgia 30030
Memo: Stacey Daniel Memorial
Or you may donate online by clicking here and following the “Donate” link and typing “Stacey Daniel Memorial” in the Comments or in Gift Designation text box.
-From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog