SALT LAKE CITY — A bride at 16, a cancer survivor before 30, Stacey Bess is no stranger to struggle. Small wonder her first teaching job was in a metal Quonset hut under a freeway viaduct, and her pupils were the homeless.
"There are some things I can share with these people. That's why they don't reject me," she said. "I don't come here without life experience."
Her classroom, called the School With No Name, has since been moved to a family shelter on Rio Grande Street. Bess moved with it, continuing her roles as teacher, friend and champion to the children she feels she can't leave.
"Every time I think about quitting, I worry someone will come back looking for me," she said.
And they do. All the time.
"For this assignment I want to know where you would go if you were going to run away," she told her pupils in grades 3 through 6. "And no fair coming to my house. I have enough naughty kids."
The students giggled and began. The cramped room smelled faintly of old cigarette smoke and the rabbit cage in the corner.
"I would go to my unkles," one child wrote.
"I would find my dad," said another.
Stacey Bess jumps in.
"When I was little," she said, "my parents were divorced and my dad lived in another state. I used to think about running away to him too."
Bess was the third teacher hired after the Salt Lake City School District started one of the nation's first public schools in a homeless shelter in 1984. The dingy surroundings, the heartbreak, the hopelessness--all of it got to her. She couldn't wait for her half-year contract to run out so she could flee to a tidy classroom in a brick schoolhouse and a clean neighborhood.
But by then she was hooked.
"I don't think there's any other place like this one," she said. "It's like the first day of school and the last day of school every day here. We feel all those emotions all of the time."
Bess teaches part-time now. She needs the time to travel because of a book she's written, a compilation of her experiences titled "Nobody Don't Love Nobody: Lessons on Love From the School With No Name."
The book was the product of sleepless nights with her newborn two years ago. Bess had planned to stay home with her daughter but found herself waking in the night with the need to write--and a desire to go back to work.
The stories she wrote about the kids she teaches are wrenching. Her own is no less compelling. At 16, Bess married her husband, Gregory, who was 17. They finished high school together, then college, and had three children along the way.
Two bouts with thyroid cancer soon after she began teaching didn't prevent Bess from opening her home to children needing temporary care. Her mother adopted one infant; others stayed with relatives.
"I've had a really rough life. The gray in my hair is warranted," she said. "I've always climbed uphill."
Bess, 31, has learned to color her hair and let go of the day's tensions when she gets home. Still, she isn't happy if she is long away from the two-room school at the Traveler's Aid Society Shelter.
Two years ago, with her baby strapped to her chest, Bess returned to the classroom because she couldn't stand being away.
"Nothing really bothers me. I'm very proper by nature and filth used to really startle me, but it doesn't anymore," she said. "I just adore the people. I'm not bothered by the dirt, the sickness, the mess or the snotty noses. I just love them."
Rushing to a 4 p.m. appointment, Bess hurtled out the door of the school and was stopped by a man who was plainly drunk.
"I'm not stupid," he said, grabbing her arm while he launched into a discourse on Nietzsche. "I've just had some hard times."
"You don't have to tell me you're not stupid," Bess said. "I know."
She handed him a book to read and explained that she had to go.
"Can I have your phone number at home?"
"No," she said firmly. "That's against the law."
Bess and her family think a lot about the children who have come through their lives. Two homeless boys and their sister who lived with them for months were in Midwest foster homes the last she heard, when the elder boy called in the middle of the night just to chat, and to ask her to send his baseball glove. She doesn't know where they are now.
And when she faces her pupils each morning, she never knows who will be back the next day. So she's "Stacey" to them right off, not "Mrs. Bess."
"My job is to give them everything while I have them," she said.
And to let others know how to help.
At the end of her book, Bess offers the reader some advice--get involved. She lists agencies to contact: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Red Cross, PTA, Little League.
"I wanted you to know these people. I wanted to move you," she writes. "But here are lots of ways to help."
On the day of this visit, there was ample evidence of good will and ready help. One end of the classroom is piled high with donated food, clothes and toys--the bounties of the season. The children are being entertained by high school students. Later, they'll board buses to an elementary school across town to see a play.
"It's important to give the community the chance to know and love the kids," she said.
Bess then noticed a hand-colored, Santa-shaped card that had been slipped onto the desk next to her. It is from 8-year-old Jennifer.
It read: "Stacey. I will not go waya from you. I love you."