“Don’t judge my mother,” said Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach several times yesterday at North Carolina’s Conference on Homelessness 2007 as she told the story of her life as a child of poverty, domestic abuse, and homelessness. Her mother had ten children by five men. “I have very few memories of my childhood, especially before age 5,” Sheryl said, “except that due to Sputnik I was identified as gifted at age 4.” After a first marriage ended in violent divorce, the mother “spiraled down. She drew male attention really well, and she moved very well. She was really good at it,” Sheryl remembered. “I’m really good at it. I enjoy it a lot now because I like the change. We moved relentlessly, most often when rent was overdue or in the middle of the night when we needed to run. Mother’s solution to a failed relationship was to run.”
To an audience largely of public school teachers she talked about how disappointing, even destructive, her school experiences were. Highly transient, moving from tent to foster care and back (even once living on a boat), she wasn’t in one place long enough for her teachers to understand her. “The gaps in my education became so noticeable that most educators were at a loss and so did nothing with me." In turn, "The more they treated me like I wasn’t capable, the more I believed it.”
And so today, as a teacher herself, 2002 Teacher of the Year in Virginia Beach, she is on a mission to educate the educators: “Often the most unreachable adults are the ones who have lost hope and confidence. Just one or two well-placed words will inspire and empower.”
When her mother told her “the only way I’ve let you stay this long is you’re a tax deduction,” she wasn’t encouraged to stick around. At 14 she ran away from home, hitting four states, taking care of herself, enrolling in school and even signing her own (not a fake) name to notes to excuse herself from class (no one cared). She graduated from high school with “minimal” SAT scores. Scholarships? Those were for people who deserved to go to college.
In her early 20s, after assorted living experiences in a commune, a tent, a van, and a log cabin, she married “an artistic, soft, wonderful guy”--who committed suicide on the first birthday of the youngest of their two daughters.
She decided to home-school. She started reading everything she could find about early childhood education. At age 26, for the first time she read a book all the way through. In large part to inoculate herself against people who told her she didn’t know what she was doing with her kids, she enrolled in college to get an education degree. Going to college was an act of “total rebellion” she thought, but something happened. A professor believed that she could succeed. And so for the audience, another lesson: “Don’t you dare make any child wait till they are 26 to know they have potential.”
“With this passion to change the world through knowledge,” she began to teach. She’s taught in public and private schools, home education and corporate work. Now she’s a full-time adjunct at the College of William and Mary. She’s getting a Ph.D. in educational planning, policy and leadership. “I’m telling you this to show the potential. I’m the child of an alcoholic parent, an at-risk parent. I am the face of homelessness. The difference is that I discovered a secret, and through my tough circumstance gained valuable skills that ended in unexpected outcomes.”
More words of advice: “Don’t assume that the homeless know how to play, or have manners, or know their strengths. Know that I have poor ability to conceptualize. It’s hard to conceptualize what you’ve never seen. That’s why technology is so fabulous. I can live vicariously through other people’s experiences and see things I might never get to see. Whatever my learning style is, I’m able to engage, to go through the machine to the other side to connect and collaborate with real people who can give me more instruction to move along that development continuum.”
“I have poor organizational skills. How organized can you be when you move all the time? Also try to understand that I do best working in cooperative groups. Technology really will level the playing field for me.” (She created a wiki for this talk as well as her other one, on technology for the homeless.)
“I need you to stress the usefulness of the task in front of me, because to be honest? I’m tired.”
“Please don’t misunderstand my survival decisions. Don’t judge me. Back up and realize you can’t judge my situation with your middle-class values.”
“Understand that I love my kids.”