Shannon Shuman was sitting in her fourth-grade classroom, crying and nearing the end of her tether.
It was 1978, and Shuman lived with her mother, father and six siblings in squalor and chaos that would “shock even the garbage man,” she told KSL-TV.
Her father was an alcoholic and had extramarital affairs, she told TheBlaze, and her bipolar mother was unable to cope with frequent mishaps, such as Shuman wetting the bed on a near-nightly basis.
As a result of her very strained home life, Shuman showed up to school not looking or smelling very good, which she says led to ridicule and isolation from her classmates.
“The children were bantering me, and no one would sit by me,” Shuman told KSL. “I didn’t know that most children’s mothers get up with them in the morning, and…tell them to shower. I hadn’t realized they had eaten breakfast at home, then brushed their teeth and hair.”
On this day Shuman was in tears trying to hide her sock, which had dried dog feces on it. The little girl had put it on before school not realizing it was soiled.
At that point her teacher, Kaye Johnson, paused classroom activity and met Shuman in the hallway.
Shuman said she first felt Johnson’s soft hand on her shoulder…and then heard words that became a pivot point in her life.
Johnson didn’t say she was referring Shuman to the guidance office or suggesting a meeting with her parents. Instead she gently prefaced things by noting what she was about to tell Shuman may feel hurtful at first, but could be the beginning of a turnaround for her.
“You smell really awful,” Johnson explained to her. “It is hard to be around you, but I would like to teach you how to change it. Are you OK?”
It was difficult for the fourth-grader to hear Johnson say that, and Shuman admits she was initially disheartened. But she also knew that her teacher was reaching out and loving her in a way she hadn’t experienced before.
“Her classroom was my sanctuary,” Shuman told KSL. “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.”
Every morning that week, Shuman got to school early and met Johnson in the nurse’s office at West Kearns Elementary School in Utah. There Johnson showed her how to wash her body with soap, brush her teeth and clean up after using the bathroom, which meant Shuman was able to go to class with a clean skin, hair, and teeth.
Johnson taught her about changing into clean clothes before going to sleep and showering if she soiled the bed. Shuman told TheBlaze that Johnson “brought me a bag of [clean] clothes that were her daughter’s” and put Shuman’s dirty clothes in a box.
At the end of the week, Johnson creatively taught Shuman how to use the washer and dryer based on a sketch Shuman made of the knobs on the units in her family’s house. Then Johnson handed the box of dirty clothing to Shuman, who then used the school washroom to clean them.
“She told me I had to learn to clean the laundry by myself, or everything she taught me would be lost,” Shuman told KSL. “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.”
More than that, Johnson taught Shuman what a functioning family could look like and that she could rise above her circumstances.
“Her teaching me that made me realize that I could make a difference and create a life different for my children,” Shuman told KSL.
That magical, life-changing week happened 35 years ago.
While Shuman indeed took home invaluable lessons, her home life remained chaotic for a while.
Shuman and her siblings stayed in a foster home for three months before being returned to their parents, who then divorced after Shuman began her fourth-grade year in Johnson’s class. Shuman told TheBlaze her mother remarried an “abusive man, and they moved every six months, for…fights with neighbors, eviction, bill collections.”
“I was awkward throughout junior high, but slowly made more friends,” Shuman told TheBlaze. “Kids were mean, but they didn’t understand. High school was a bit better, even though I went to two different high schools every year. I moved out of my parents’ home when I was 17 and finished high school living in my own apartment. Shortly after high school, I met my Prince Charming and have been living the Cinderella story ever since.”
Since that week in 1978, Shuman says she has forgiven her mother and father (her father, she told TheBlaze, was “very repentant” in the last 20 years of his life and became a very good father and grandfather), has her own children, and is a foster mother herself.
Inspired by Johnson, Shuman also became an elementary school teacher; she teaches second-graders at Pioneer Elementary in Preston, Idaho.
When Shuman was a high school senior, she went back to West Kearns and visited her fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Johnson. It was a brief chat, but as Johnson headed to recess, Shuman told her she planned on being a teacher, too.
“She just told me she was proud of me,” Shuman recalled. “I didn’t tell her anything else; I wish I would have.”
“I never felt judged by her. I only felt love. 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.”
The only thing Shuman wants to do now is get back in touch with Johnson or her family so Shuman can relate how much of an influence her fourth-grade teacher was in her life.
Shuman said she reached out to the school district but told TheBlaze she hasn’t yet learned if Johnson is still alive or how she can reach her or her family. Shuman told TheBlaze that Johnson would probably be in her 70s or 80s today.
“I just really would like to, somehow, show gratitude to her, even if it’s through my actions,” Shuman told KSL. “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.”
TheBlaze is attempting to find Kaye Johnson on behalf of Shannon Shuman; if you know of Johnson’s whereabouts, you can submit a tip to email@example.com.