Willard Alternative High School teacher Donna "Momma" Spearman never turned on the overhead light in her classroom. Instead, the white-haired English teacher who wore Birkenstocks to work opted for lamps and Christmas lights.
Spearman also drew upon unusual strategies to spark creativity within her students. For example, she asked students—many of whom had walked away from mainstream curriculum before landing at Willard—to read a book and create an art project reflecting its theme. On a recent morning, every nook in the well-loved teacher's classroom is filled with those art projects. A mobile hangs from an orange string. It reads, "Demons were angels that fell from the top." Beneath the mobile sits a little blue doll, arms bound and a hood covering its head. A watercolor sun beams down from the wall.
As her peers gear up for fall semester, Spearman's classroom is dark. She died August 15, at age 71. The loss is prompting former students, coworkers and friends to celebrate her legacy.
"I'm pretty sure she was a fairy godmother," says former student Ruthie Dada. "She had this little twinkle in her eye. She was fucking incredible."
Spearman spent decades working in alternative education. During the past 10 years, her classroom at Willard provided a refuge for hundreds of teenagers, like Dada, who struggled in a traditional high school setting.
"She was always there to listen to you," Dada says. "She would actually take the time to ask you how you were doing."
Memories like that shape Spearman's legacy. Willard art teacher Gwen Hoppe says she can't count how many times students told her that Spearman was their favorite faculty member. A scrapbook created to commemorate her life at Willard is already beginning to fill with photos and stories chronicling the teacher's successes.
"She had a big heart. And she had a soft heart. And she understood, I would say, the 'alternative student,'" Hoppe says.
That's why it's so hard for some to let her go.
"I hope they don't touch her room," Dada says.