Sometimes we’re fortunate to find legends living among us, and 86-year old Houston icon Bertie Simmons is one. This octogenarian still makes social justice her number
one cause, her passion since childhood.
Simmons’ book, Whispers of Hope: The Story of My Life, traces her humble beginnings in Louisiana to an impressive career as an educator, turning around a throw-away school in Houston and winning awards for her unconventional process.
Bertie Simmons continues to be a beacon of wisdom and fairness who we can look to for answers to the complicated nuances of our challenging times.
Can you tell us something about your childhood, and how you ended up in Houston?
I grew up in north Louisiana during the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era. We were extremely poor and moved often. I thought I was very bright until I went to school and found out I couldn’t read.
My mother, who was working as a nurse’s aide, studied diligently to find out why I was having difficulty in reading. She determined that there was a problem with the way my brain processed written words, and she personally taught me to read. Somehow, I learned to read and was determined to go to college.
I had an abusive father who became an alcoholic. I decided the only way I would ever get to go to college was to run away from home, which I did at the age of 16. I worked my way through college and became an English teacher. During my first job, I married my husband and we moved to Houston.
You’ve won some awards in your career…
Yes—during my tenure, I received numerous awards including Teacher of the Year, HEB Best Principal in Texas, Spirit of Texas Award, Houston Independent School District Excellence in Leadership, Distinguished Graduate Award from Sam Houston State University, and the City of Houston Apple Award.
Describe the $10 million grant from Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, and what it represents.
In 2016, our school won a ten-million-dollar grant from Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, for rethinking high schools. While over 700 schools applied for this award, only ten in the nation were chosen to think about schooling in a more unconventional manner. Examples of this were:
– Using restorative discipline rather than expelling or suspending students.
– Preparing wrap-around services including a clinic.
– Giving students choice and voice in decisions regarding their learning.
– Extending learning beyond the brick and mortar classrooms.
Is it true that you brought gang members along with honor students to Ground Zero in NYC?
I was called out of retirement to become the principal of a gang-infested high school in Houston. I returned from a meeting, and there was a riot on campus. Ambulances were carrying away students and police who had been injured. I was horrified and uncertain about what I should do.
My assistant principals said they were sending 32 gang members to an alternative school to get them off campus. I knew we had always done that, and it never changed student behavior. So, I said I wouldn’t do it. They told me I would probably be fired for breaking the rules. I replied that it might be a blessing.
Another rule was that we must never bring warring gangs together. When I told the assistant principals that I was going to bring all 15 gangs together, they said I would definitely be fired. When I called the 32 gangsters together, there was a lot of mean-mugging going on. Finally, I asked what I could do to bring peace into their lives and into the school. They told me they trusted no one except their gang. Then one said they didn’t think 9/11 had really happened. Others chimed in and said it was just movies to fool them because they were poor and minorities. When I told them I knew it had happened, one said, “Miss, if you believe that, you are dumber than we are!”
What did you say to that?
If I took them all to New York to see Ground Zero, would they trust me and the system more? There was dead silence. Then one asked, “Miss, would you drive us?” I told him that I was an old woman and I could not drive a bunch of thugs to New York City. Suddenly they began laughing because I had called them thugs. They began to open up and talk with me and even signed a contract that there would be no gang fights for the remainder of that year, and I planned to take them to New York in June.
The teachers at the school thought that if anyone went to New York City it should be the members of the National Honor Society. I was able to obtain funds to take nine members of the National Honor Society and 32 gang members to New York. Not only did they see Ground Zero, but I also took them to the Broadway play, 42nd Street. The members of the gangs and the National Honor Society became friends, and we had no other gang fights on campus.
What’s your message to teachers and parents and, even more important, young people to help them persevere through these unusual times?
Even though we are presently living in a new world over which we feel we have little control, this pandemic will end someday. This present world requires that we find ways to reduce stress, give us hope, and avoid joining our children in what is called “silent distress.” Learn more about mindfulness and practice it. You will learn to maintain a sense of control and reduce stress. Hope will no longer be a whisper but will be broadcast across the land.
Cover photo courtesy Bertie Simmons
Kim Weiss, author/photographer/musician and PR and publishing professional for almost three decades, is the author of the photo essay book “Sunrise Sunset: 52 Weeks of Awe & Gratitude.” She now lives in Santa Fe with her husband, John, and her kitties, Anabelle and Sachi.