Update: Mrs. Johnson was located and met with Shannon Shuman. For that story, click here: Woman reconnects with teacher who changed her life.
KEARNS — When Shannon Shuman’s fourth grade teacher strayed from the curriculum to teach a lesson just for her, Shuman’s whole life changed.
In 1978, Shuman was a fourth-grade student at West Kearns Elementary School. She lived with her parents and six siblings in what she described as “squalor” conditions that would “shock even the garbage man.” Her mother, who was bipolar, was doing her best Shuman said, but the family lived in filth, which isolated Shuman from her peers.
“The children were bantering me, and no one would sit by me. Tears filled my eyes, and confusion filled my heart. To me, I wasn’t any different than them,” Shuman wrote to KSL. “I didn’t know that most children’s mothers get up with them in the morning, and when they wet the bed (which I did nearly every night), their mothers would tell them to shower. I hadn’t realized they had eaten breakfast at home, then brushed their teeth and hair.”
The turning point for Shuman came one day at school while she cried as she tried to hide her sock, which had dried dog feces on it. She had put it on that morning without realizing the sock was soiled. Her teacher, Kaye Johnson, a silver-haired woman, told her to meet her in the hallway.
As Shuman waited in the hallway, she felt a soft hand on her shoulder. Mrs. Johnson told her she needed to tell Shuman something that may hurt her feelings but would explain why her peers treated her so badly.
“You smell really awful,” Shuman said Johnson told her. “It is hard to be around you, but I would like to teach you how to change it. Are you OK?”
Shuman lost confidence at that moment, but knew Mrs. Johnson was reaching out to her in love.
“Her classroom was my sanctuary,” Shuman said. “My home life was chaotic, I didn’t have any friends, and the students were awful to me, but I knew she loved me. I knew she saw the person no one else could see. I loved going to school. She gave me hope. I wanted to be just like her.”
Over the next week, Shuman arrived before school to meet Mrs. Johnson in the nurse’s office. Her teacher showed her how to clean her body with soap, brush her teeth and clean up after using the restroom. She taught her about changing into clean clothing before bed and showering if she soiled the bed at night. Shuman said the information was revolutionary.
Every morning that week, Shuman showered and brushed her teeth at the school before class. Mrs. Johnson would give her a change of clean clothing and put the dirty clothing in a box. At the end of the week, Mrs. Johnson taught her how to use the washer and dryer using a drawing Shuman had made of the knobs on her family’s units. Then she gave the dirty clothing in the box to Shuman to take to the school washroom and clean.
“She told me I had to learn to clean the laundry by myself, or everything she taught me would be lost,” Shuman said. “I loved the smell of the clothes she brought each day. I loved not having to worry all day if the socks I chose were already filthy. I felt liberated and never wanted to go backwards.”
Shuman said Mrs. Johnson taught her about more than hygiene. She taught her what a functioning family could look like.
“Before she taught me all of that I had no idea what a regular mom does. I had no idea what a normal family does,” Shuman said. “All I knew was what a dysfunctional, bipolar mother does. And it never occurred to me before that that was any different from normal.”
She also taught her that people can rise above their circumstances and change their lives.
"I don't know how to ever give that back except to be a teacher and to do what I'm trying to do every day. The more I'm a teacher the more I realize I should have told her thank you."
“Her teaching me that made me realize that I could make a difference and create a life different for my children,” Shuman said. “I didn’t realize the difference was parents in the homes. Having a grownup love and care for you makes a difference in who you become.”
Mrs. Johnson reported the family’s circumstances to the state. Shuman and her siblings stayed in a foster home for three months before being returned to their parents, who then moved every six months to keep custody of their children. Shuman said she dreamed of going back into foster care where she was loved and cared for better than at home.
The teacher’s influence spread through Shuman’s entire life. In the 35 years since Mrs. Johnson reached out to her, Shuman has forgiven her parents, is happily married, works as a teacher in Preston, ID, has her own children and is a foster mother.
“I never felt judged by her. I only felt love,” Shuman said. “What she really taught me is life is about giving what you have to others and meeting their needs from where they are. Sometimes that means saying hard things, but also reaching out with love when you do.”
As a senior in high school, Shuman paid a visit to Mrs. Johnson. In their brief conversation before the teacher headed to recess, Shuman told her she was going to be a teacher.
“She was still teaching at West Kearns Elementary and I had told her that I wanted to become a teacher,” Shuman said. “I did tell her that I wanted to become a teacher because she was my teacher. But I didn’t tell her anything else, I wish I would have. She just told me she was proud of me.”
Now, Shuman wants to get in touch with Mrs. Johnson or her family, so they can know of the influence the fourth-grade teacher had on a young student’s life. She reached out to the school district, but has not found information about whether or not Mrs. Johnson is still alive or how she can reach her or her family.
“I just really would like to, somehow, show gratitude to her, even if it’s through my actions,” Shuman said. “I don’t know how to ever give that back except to be a teacher and to do what I’m trying to do every day. The more I’m a teacher the more I realize I should have told her thank you.”