For 34 years, Shirley Willis taught, consulted and administered programs for students with special needs in every disability category, kindergarten through twelfth grade, in Wisconsin, Maine and Arizona. After completing 61,753 pages of reports and forms, she retired to let out the stories whispering at the edge of her keyboard. She lives with her best-buddy husband, Richard, smack in the middle of Arizona’s spectacular vistas.
She holds an MS in administration and special education, all categories K-12, and a BS in elementary education and learning disabilities. She has been compared to a bull terrier when kids are marginalized with labels. She thinks she’s persistent and amiable. Richard thinks she’s both.
Shirley was born in Farmington, New Mexico before it was cool to say the Four Corners Area and immediately started a life as a cast-off and nomad. Abandoned by her mother weeks after birth, she was taken in by her very generous, very kind and very young Uncle Bob and Aunt Doris. When Shirley was two, her mother returned, saw that Shirley was a dimpled, redhead like Shirley Temple, her namesake after all, and ripped her out of the only home she knew. To avoid family interference, her mother transported Shirley across the country to mid-century North Carolina where a standard practice among white-folk. babysitters for keeping children in line was to threaten that the boogey-men, also called less polite names, across the tracks would take them away and “do bad stuff to them.” Shirley despised the n-word then and there. Shirley’s mother also planned to present the older, now potty-trained little Shirley to her biological father for blackmail.
The plan backfired big time. The kind black man across the tracks became Shirley’s refuge for food, fun and and kindness, and she thought his daughter was her long-lost sister. The biological father had moved on, married and had a brand new baby. He could give a damn about blackmail.
Soon Shirley’s mother realized that a child needed stuff, like food and clothes. Shirley was promptly scooted off to an orphanage. Just before adoption could be finalized, Shirley’s mother married and the new stepfather insisted on “claiming the child.” He also insisted on meeting the mother’s family in Farmington, NM. So back they went. All the way there, Shirley cried along with the new stepdad’s sad country music for her black sister and her nice father. The stepfather thought Shirley was a particularly devoted Patsy Cline fan.
In Farmington, home to one of the largest Native American tribes in the nation, and barely out of toddlerdom, Shirley developed a scrupulous curiosity. One Saturday afternoon in the old drugstore, she decided it was time to set the facts straight about the folklore that Navajo ladies wore several skirts at a time, one over the other—newest on top. Shirley and her grandparents were having their weekly ice cream next to the charming soda fountain and postcard rack. Shirley had first one lick then another of her strawberry cone while an elder tribal woman lined up to pay her bill at the counter. She was decked out in the velvets and silk of traditional dress. Shirley crept over and lifted the majestic lady’s cascading skirt, merely to count, of course. That was the end of the ice cream and Shirley was never allowed back in the store. She was five years old. She thought for most of her childhood that was the reason her family was always on the run because Shirley’s father, generous, clever and feckless, moved at the drop of a funeral or wedding from one side of the country to the other. The family moved over 23 times before Shirley was 15, always in search of the “better deal.” Along the way, she learned a great deal about applied geography, integrating herself and four younger siblings into new situations, finding the humor in the manners and habits of humans and mastering the art of reading in a home where the only printed material was tomato soup cans, cereal boxes and stolen comic books.
From birth, Shirley was destined to become either an investigative reporter or a special education teacher. She opted for teaching as the one with a paycheck and decades later Naked Teaching: A Love Story was born.
“When people try to bury you, remind yourself you are a seed.”