A beloved Alabama custodian just earned his college degree with the help of a group of teachers he refers to as his “school moms,” WREG News reports. By the time Derrick Harris arrived at Wacoochee Elementary school as a custodian, he had already experienced his fair share of challenges. Harris’ father pass-ed away when he was still in elementary school.
He was raised by his grandparents and mom and always dreamed of going to college. When he graduated from Beauregard High School in 2014, he realized that finding a job with benefits was much more c*iti*al at the time. A friend told him about a custodian job at Wacoochee, and his life has never been the same. “To know Derrick is to love Derrick,” Julie Anne Eldred, a teacher at Wacoochee, said.
The staff immediately liked him, noticing his diligence, work ethic, and friendly nature. More importantly, they saw how good he was with the kids. For six years, Harris has been serving as a custodian. He eventually shared his dream of going to college with the school counselor, Tracie Lane, who then assembled a group of teachers to support Harris.
“We sat down and mapped out his whole college career, and he said, ‘why do we have to write it all down?’ and I said you have to see the end is in sight. We gathered teachers together and had a faculty meeting to discuss helping him. I had a book bag that was my sister’s; we lost her at 17, she was ki**ed in a car accident.
So I said, ‘I want you to have this backpack because I know you will use it well,’ and we st-uffed it full of school supplies. I said, you are going to fall, and that’s okay. We will be here to catch you,” Lane recalled.
Harris began attending classes at night while working his full-time custodial position during the day. When he needed help, he called on his “school moms,” who would help him during their lunch or planning period. “I love them to death for putting up with me. Math was the biggest challenge for me, with projects and endless papers. I quickly learned to go to just one when I needed editing a paper and not 20 of them,” Harris said.
While he continued his schooling two years ago, the school decided to hire him as a special education paraprofessional. “While he supports many, many special education students, he is just as important to all of our kids. He has such a good nature with the children, such an encourager and a giver, he is the epitome of if you see a need fill a need,” principal Stacie Reddish said.
Still, Harris experienced one challenge after another, losing his grandfather and nine months later losing his grandmother, all before he was scheduled to graduate. The co**nav**us pandemic also made his last college semester extremely diffi-cult. “My grandparents prayed for me even when I didn’t pray for myself. I know they are watching me; my dad is too. They led me to this moment,” said Harris.
After his graduation, the school staff held a surprise graduation and farewell party for him as they lined the hall. Students and teachers hugged Harris as he walked by in his cap and gown with tears in their eyes. The 26-year-old is getting ready to begin the Physical Education Teaching program at Auburn University in Montgomery and already has a Physical Education assistant position with Opelika City Schools.
While staff and students are sad to see him leave, they are thrilled to see Harris finally accomplish his dreams of becoming a P.E. teacher. His story is an example of perseverance and hard work amid adversity.