A Principal Who Can’t Shake the Memory of One Special Student

Catherine Diezi was a military wife in her mid-30s when she started teaching. She hadn’t considered education as a career until teachers at her children’s school, on a naval air base in Lemoore, Calif., noticed she was a natural with children and encouraged her to go back to college to complete her degree. She’d finished one year of college before getting married and moving across the country with her then-husband. That nudge led to a 31-year career—a her true purpose—that took Diezi from California, to Washington state, to Memphis, Tenn. She retires this month as principal of Shelby Oaks Elementary School, which she led for 16 years.

In her own words, Diezi reflects on her love of teaching and the students she will never forget. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I’m very much a children’s literature person. I love children’s literature.

When we were studying the Holocaust, I was teaching 5th grade, so my higher-achieving students read The Diary of Anne Frank. The majority of the class was studying Number the Stars, and I found The Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. I brought in lots of other literature books, and it was a very robust unit.

I had a student the year that I really got into the Holocaust unit, who was supposed to go to special education the majority of the day. But he didn’t like to go. He wanted to stay in class with us. He could not read very well, but he wanted to read The Diary of Anne Frank, which is a tough book for a special education student to read.

I allowed it, and encouraged him. I was like, “OK, if you are going to stay in class with me, this is what I expect from you.” He met my expectations; he thrived in my class.

That year I had a class that had a lot of students people would say would be challenging. When I was in the hall with Sherman at the beginning of the school year, a teacher said something to me like, ‘Oh, you have Sherman.’ He heard that. I pulled him aside and I said, ‘Sherman, I don’t listen to what other people tell me about students. You have to show me who you are and who you want to be.’

There was a time when he was walking out the front door, and the principal saw him reading a book. She came back to me later and said, ‘What have you done to Sherman? He was reading.’ I was like, ‘Yes, he likes to read.’

That same year, we received our [Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program] scores back, and his mother happened to be at school because it was field day. He grew by 27 points. I told her, and I cried, and so did she.

Some students can challenge you, some students can make you go home and cry, but we have to believe they are able to do more than they believe they can.

Sherman thrived that year he wanted to be with me. Even when he went to middle school and the new leader said something, he wanted to connect with me. I would ask periodically how Sherman was doing. There was a day he’d gotten into trouble and she said, ‘Do I need to call Dr. Diezi?’ and I talked to him.

I often wonder what happened to Sherman. I didn’t hear from him after he went to high school and beyond.

Periodically, probably every year at some point or another, and probably because I’ve been reflecting about my career a lot lately, I think about him, a lot.

I often use him as an example with other teachers. I don’t believe we should ever give up on our students. Some students can challenge you; some students can make you go home and cry, but we have to believe they are able to do more than they believe they can.

When I talk about the experiences of students who do more than we originally thought they would, he is the one I always bring up.

He has such a common name that I don’t think I can find him on social media. But I would love to know what happened to him.

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