Linda Marie Smith: Princess of Possibilities

Linda Smith has been described as an icon in the Santa Ynez Valley. As the much-loved director of Dunn Middle School as well as a dynamic language arts teacher, she goes beyond the call of duty every day, inspiring those around her, both young and old, to be the best they can be. Linda has developed several educational programs, including the Alternative Program designed for gifted and at-risk students. She contributes untold hours on behalf of others in community service, in particular helping victims of domestic violence. Her unofficial nickname is the Princess of Possibilities, and anyone who knows her can see why.  (In 2010, after ten years at Dunn, Linda moved on from her role as director of the middle school and will be involved in development of an online “distance” learning program, among other new adventures.)

I was born in Chicago in 1956. In fact, a few years ago, I went back to see where I was born. My parents lived in the garage of a house, as strange as it sounds. They got married when they were eighteen and had me when they were nineteen, so there was no time in between. My dad was working two jobs and they really couldn’t afford to stay someplace nice. Their families were very angry with them for getting married. They wouldn’t support them. They said, “You’re on your own.”

We lived there for a year and then moved to another kind of garage apartment. They’re not unusual in that part of Chicago. It was a tiny place, and I still have vague memories of it. But I have the strongest memories of the neighborhood in Chicago where I lived afterwards, until I was about seven. Our family of five kids was the smallest in the neighborhood. Most of the families were Catholic and they thought it was good to have a lot of kids. There were anywhere from eight to fourteen kids in every house.

My mom didn’t work. She got pregnant right after they got married and then had one child every year for five years. I think when the third child was young she went to work for Cook County Hospital for a while but she didn’t work again until I was in junior high.

It’s intriguing to me that my family struggled so much. So many kids, so little money, and rejected by their own family. At one point, my dad was desperate for money, and he didn’t know how he was going to keep his family alive, so he went to his mother-in-law and asked for help. She said, essentially, “You got yourself into this pickle; you’re gonna have to figure out a way. I have one solution: you could stay married to my daughter, successfully, just the two of you, if you put the kids up for adoption.” She was quite serious about that, and it’s so strange. She herself had only raised one child, and was a somewhat angry and resentful person.

When we left Chicago, we lived in a suburb, and that was exciting. I was ready to move out of the city. My family left the Catholic Church when I was in kindergarten. This was a big deal; our whole family was Catholic, and it was very important to them. But my family chose to leave the church because they didn’t understand it anymore. They felt very strongly about this, and didn’t make the decision lightly, but it disgraced our family. Friends of mine in school talked about the fact that I was going to go to hell. I felt ostracized. So in a way, when my parents eventually decided to move, I was glad. This would be a clean break.

It would be one of many moves. If you talk to different people in my family, we all have different memories about this. I remember being sad about leaving friends, but I never cried. It felt like Linus where he’s looking at the dryer, watching his blanket dry. I felt like that. The old stuff was comfortable for me and I didn’t want to let go of it, just as Linus didn’t want to let go of his blanket. But the idea of a new opportunity was always exciting to me, especially in junior high, because I wanted to reinvent myself all the time. I felt like I could be a completely different person and no one would know. It never worked out, but I did change a little every time I moved. I remember when I went to Texas and said I was from California, everyone just assumed I lived around movie stars. When I moved back to California after living in Illinois, they thought I was insane because California was going to fall into the sea from the earthquake. It’s fascinating how California is viewed by people who don’t know it.

I had two special places while I was growing up. In one home, there was a stairwell, and there was a door in the stairway, but it wasn’t really a finished room. It was just there. My mom let me own that place. I was the oldest girl, and I loved to read, and she felt that it was important for me to have my own space. I loved keeping things in boxes. That room looked like a storage area, because I had all these little treasures in boxes, but it was really important to me.

My other special place was the North Shore Baptist Church. It was a huge neighborhood church that we joined after we left the Catholic Church. And it wasn’t just the main part of the church, although that was certainly beautiful. They had a basement; they had a bowling alley in the church, a basketball court, a gym. They had a youth group room with ping pong tables. I have so many pictures of Halloween festivals and roller skating — yes, there was a roller skating rink in there! They really tried to make it so that inner city kids would have a place to go. So a lot of my earliest memories with friends were at church, and that became very important to me. That church felt like an island. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I loved that place.

I had a lot of different kinds of friends in Chicago. My best friend was Japanese. My mom thought that was so unique, because it wasn’t any part of her experience. But the city school that I went to was becoming much more of a mixed culture school. As a matter of fact, it actually has very few white children today. But I loved this girl, and I loved going to her house. She was the only child in her family, and they had white carpeting. I thought that was remarkable. It was so thick, too! I just wanted to lie in her carpeting. They must have thought it was very odd that this girl comes to their house and just wants to lie down in the carpeting.

In third grade, I had the strangest teacher I ever had, and her name was Mrs. LaStrange. I thought it was the coolest name, and she lived up to it. She was odd. She had dark hair and wore dark clothes all the time. She kept the drapes in the classroom pulled so it was always dark in the room. There was a boy in there that later went on to become a newscaster; his name was Lloyd Bennett. He was the first boy who ever kissed me. In Chicago, the old classrooms had coatrooms in the back. You would open the door, and there were hooks for your coats, and you’d put your lunches in there, and you’d take off your boots and leave them there to dry out. Mrs. LaStrange always kept the coatroom closed, and it was not unusual for Lloyd to try to grab me in there. He was very precocious. I think coatrooms are legendary for this.

We moved a lot when I was growing up and we went to churches around the country – Chicago, Texas, California – -then back to Chicago, and back to California. We’d always check out Baptist or Methodist churches. When we went to Texas, it was a different kind of Baptist church, so we left. But when we moved to California, we decided to try the Baptist church again. I was nineteen years old. My parents had gone to this church before and they said “Why don’t you come and visit the church with us?”

I didn’t want to go. I was working a lot. When I wasn’t working, I was working out. I went to a gym and I loved that part of my life. I just wasn’t into meeting new people; I had recently left my boyfriend back in Chicago and was talking to him regularly, and that’s what was interesting to me. But they talked me into visiting church that Sunday, along with all my brothers and sisters. Then someone asked if there was anyone new visiting the church. My parents had already been to the church, and they started elbowing me, “Stand up, stand up.” So I stood up, thinking all my brothers and sisters would stand as well. But they didn’t.

So I stood up by myself. I’m like rolling my eyes, “My name is Linda, and these are all my brothers and sisters: Marty, John, Judy, Curt…” Let me just die here. So meantime, this guy Doug is turning around. He’s a part of the college youth group there, and he just sees this new girl. Doug’s dad had been the minister of that church and his mom was the organist. I didn’t know that at the time. Afterwards, he came up to invite me to the youth group. I looked at him, and he looked like a gigantic football player to me, and I mean truly, it was one of those experiences, and I thought he was the most gorgeous guy I had ever seen. But he would never be interested in me, not at all, never. I just couldn’t even imagine that. So he invited me to the youth group, and I was too embarrassed to go, and I didn’t go. And he was counting on me going.

He called the next week and invited me again. But this was really weird. Just before he called, my mom said, “I wish that nice boy Doug would call you and ask you out.” The phone rang. And it was him. I thought she must have paid him. “Would you take my daughter out? ‘Cause otherwise she’s gonna marry this Italian boy in Chicago.”

I was only twenty when I met Doug, and I was twenty-one when I got married. But it always felt right. When Doug asked my father if he could marry me…there was a beer commercial at the time that said, “When you know it’s right, it’s right.” And my father said to Doug, “When you know it’s right, it’s right…and this just seems like one of those marriages.” We’ve been married twenty-five years, and I adore him.

I feel so blessed in my life. I look back on it and ask these questions many times because I have been raised in a religious home, but I look back and ask if this means there is a plan for my life, God’s will…and I don’t feel comfortable with that because it doesn’t explain why such bad things happen to some people. But what I do feel is an unbelievably strong sense that some things were just handed to me. It just seemed so simple to go to college when I finally made the decision, because Doug was going to college. When I hear about people that dropped out, I can understand why they did, but it seemed so simple to me to change my life when I made that decision.

In retrospect, I can see that church has been the center of my life. I met my husband there, and so many things in my life revolve around church. Church was so many things for me. It was spiritual, social, good people that were role models – that’s a big part of it.

Anyway, I thought I was gonna be a secretary for the rest of my life. My big goal was maybe to be a legal secretary. When I was in high school, I worked as a switchboard operator, and I worked in some ice cream places and ate a lot of ice cream. I started out as a secretary for Santa Fe Railroad in the late 1970s. Women were being promoted in business rapidly; people wanted women to be in management positions. There were very few women, and I wanted to be someone important. I started dressing up big time, looking serious. They could see that I wanted to succeed and would do whatever it took. It was exciting for me because they offered me the chance to be promoted rapidly. I became a claims investigator. When accidents happened, I would try to determine whose fault it was. That was interesting.

I eventually left to go back to school for a while. I worked for ten psychologists as office manager. Then I left that job and worked for a company that studied junior colleges, and eventually went to work for a disk manufacturing company. Having someone believe in you can make all the difference. My boss was an eastern Indian named Mohammed Sheik, and he believed in me in an enormous way. I was able to write their tech manuals so that people could understand in simple terms what they needed to do with their computers. Most of the engineers were not very social, didn’t work well with the public and couldn’t write very well, so he started relying on me for that sort of thing. I did a lot of computer shows, also, traveling a lot, taking our product across the United States. Doug and I were married at the time. Some of the places I had to travel to were fun, but there were a lot of things I didn’t like. After awhile, I didn’t like hotel rooms. And I was young and married, and men came onto me a lot. This was a very uncomfortable part about being a secretary and a businesswoman. Things have changed.

One thing I loved about moving and traveling is that I have a mental picture of so many places! When people say something about Texas, I know what Texas looks like. I know what Kentucky looks like. I know what most of the United States looks like.

And the different kinds of people you meet! I remember when I was in high school, we went on a camping trip, and I went for a hike with one of the boys and we got lost. It was in a backcountry part of Illinois. We found an old shack where a man and a woman lived, and I’ll never forget this feeling, “Nobody knows these people live here.” They were the strangest people I had ever seen in my life. We were starving, and they brought this gigantic jar of purple liquid, and inside the purple liquid were hard-boiled eggs. Pickled eggs, which I didn’t even know existed. They boiled the eggs as the chickens laid them and then preserved them in this way. This is what’s cool about living in different places. You meet so many different people. I didn’t actually eat any pickled eggs. I tasted one and it reminded me of beets.

A lot of people told me I should be a teacher, all my life. I always found that to be flattering, but I don’t think I ever felt confident enough to consider teaching. In one of the houses we lived in while I was growing up, we had a basement, and my mom let us turn it into a classroom. At that point I thought being a teacher was really fun, partly because I’ve always been bossy, and I thought the main job of a teacher was to be bossy. (Actually, I’ve lived up to that.) And I loved school. I think a lot of people who become teachers are like the schoolgirls and school boys. They enjoyed it, they did well, and they got reinforced for it.

So being a teacher sounded intriguing, but I couldn’t envision myself doing it. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college or had a professional career. You hold those people up as something really, really special. I could easily imagine doing other things, but not something professional. I became a teacher just ten years ago, when I was 35.

When I had young children, one woman in particular knew the books I would buy for my children and the activities I would plan for them, and she kept encouraging me to become a teacher. But I didn’t like working with young children. I loved working with junior high and high school kids. I used to do classes on creative dating. I did conventions with 2,000 kids at a leadership conference and we’d talk about how to go out on a date and have a fun time in a really creative way. Those kids laughed at what I had to say, and little kids never got the jokes.

But teaching was always being brought up to me. When I moved to the Santa Ynez Valley, I looked into the possibility of home schooling. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized that what I wanted to do was teach. So I did it.

I began working with People Helping People while I was a teacher at Santa Ynez School. They were starting Healthy Start Program, and as a teacher, I let them know what some of the needs were. We helped get that off the ground. I became a board member for about a year or two, and then I didn’t do anything with them for a long time. But I had a friend named Luanne Palius. She told me that one way she was involved was through a program that she helped develop that dealt with domestic violence. She was in desperate need of volunteers to help out, and she had trained a lot of people. People heard about the program and were interested, but they got kind of scared when it came down to actually going out on a call and being on their own. I was kind of the opposite. The more she told me, the more I wanted to do that.

We don’t know why we enjoy the things we do. It isn’t as though I stop and say, “Oh, I want to help someone.” Some of these things just sound exciting to me, and this one felt like something I wanted to do right from the beginning. There’s forty hours of training, and the very first hour, I knew I would do it. I love it. It just landed in my lap. I think you find the thing that best suits you.

I’d also had a number of students who were abused, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I was so drawn to this work. I couldn’t stand the fact that I had kids with bruises on their faces and their arms. I had heard a few stories from students that were so horrendous I almost wish I never knew the stories, because I didn’t know what to do. There was only one thing I could legally do, and I had to, which was to report them to an agency called Child Protective Services and hope they would take care of it. That’s a horrible part about being a teacher. So when this program came along, I thought maybe if I stop the mom and dad from fighting, maybe the kids won’t get beat up.

Ever get a call in the middle of night? I don’t know how to describe it, but when that call is dispatched, my pager goes off, and I have to get up and call dispatch. At that moment, I’m not very energetic. But the second I’m talking to dispatch, and they tell me what the story is, I’m wide awake. And I know that it might not be serious, but it could be, and suddenly I’m not tired anymore. And I’m never even tired the next day It doesn’t tend to be a big deal. There have been times when I left a call just before coming to school, and I really want to talk about it, but it wouldn’t be appropriate. Sometimes I do share stories, because it’s overwhelming to me that people don’t ask for help more. There are so many women and even men who have been abused who don’t know how important it is to ask for help. I think that starts even now. Think of the times you’ve felt lost at school and didn’t ask your teacher for help. Or things have not been going well at home and you just want to run in your room. I think we all do that, but you need to know you’re not alone.

It is overwhelming to me that these people have literally been physically hurt or told they’re idiots, or someone swears at them and calls them every name in the book, and they just think they can handle it. And they never believe that the police or anyone could really help them. Another hard part of my job is the realization that there are so many women who don’t speak English, and so they don’t even know that this is unacceptable in our culture, and that when your husband is beating you, it is illegal, it’s a crime, and there are people who can help. So we try to get the word out.

People compliment me about this work, and I feel uncomfortable because I really feel so good about doing it, I feel selfish. If you have a chance to help, you help. It isn’t a big deal.

People tell me I really jump in. Well, that can bite you in the rear end. I don’t have much of a filter in my head. What I’m thinking is what I say, and that can get you into trouble sometimes. If I think someone is being unacceptable, or a jerk, I’ll say it. But letting people know the best things about them is also important. Remaining calm helps me a lot, too. I have learned that getting angry or crying a lot doesn’t do much good.

One thing I truly feel passionate about sounds stupid, but I have to say it. My life truly changed when I began to see that if you try to find the best part of a situation, you really do find the best part. You know how some people in line start getting angry and anxious, and mad? They’re annoying to be around. Then there are the people who instead focus on the positive things and start talking to people next to them, and making friends. It’s as simple as that: focusing on the positive things makes your life a whole lot better. This realization completely changed my life.

And I have so many dreams, it’s insane. If there is one thing I’m addicted to, it’s dreams, and it gets worse every year. I think I need to start a list, because it’s getting out of control. I want to meet Johnny Depp. I want to see the Iditarod. I ran in a half marathon once, and I’d like to do that one more time. I love traveling, and I have a list of places I want to go.

And sometimes I love to stay in bed reading. I am a binge reader. I read everything. Sometimes I wonder, “Why am I reading this?” I read cereal boxes top to bottom. I read everything that comes in the mail. Everything! I don’t remember most of it, but I read it.

I also like the idea of doing something you really don’t expect yourself to do.

Some of my dreams have come true. Long ago, I dreamed of sitting in a gondola with someone I was crazy about, and I recently did that with Doug. I had to keep saying to myself, “I’m doing it. I’m doing it.” I know I’m appreciating it while it’s happening, but I am also aware that I will appreciate it even more over time. I will savor it and tell the story. I love to tell stories. And someday I’d like to be a public speaker; I like the idea of working with my husband and going to conferences and speaking to people.

Some of my best moments are vicarious ones – -the dreams and accomplishments of people I care about, like Cameron and Carly, my kids.

Working at Dunn Middle School marks a time when everything in my life is coming together. All the different kinds of people that I am, I can be here. One of the reasons I’m happy here is that the teachers that work here really believe in me and have made that clear. There is nothing more addictive than having the people who work with you believe in you. I’ve had so many cool experiences in my life, and my hope is to make that contagious for our students. We really work hard to offer you guys a lot of different experiences and to help you find something socially that you care about. We want to be the teachers that you know believe in you. If we convince you there is something you are capable of doing, and you had no idea you were capable of doing it, we’d really get off on that.

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