By Stephen Pierce
This past holiday break, the Eden Central School District received devastating news: Our beloved guidance counselor of 20-plus years, Amy Banks, died of a heart attack at the age of 47.
It may seem clichéd to say that Amy was special, but the fact that visitations to her wake registered in the thousands speaks volumes about her immeasurable impact on friends, colleagues and students. Moving testimonials of Amy’s ability to change lives echoed down the blocklong visitation line where some waited up to three hours in the cold to pay their respects.
Amy was someone who drove to school every day pondering which of her colleagues needed a kind word or what new tactic might help crack that reticent student who was so hard to reach. Everyone knew her as a powerful advocate for the students of Eden, especially those who sometimes felt out of step with their peers. Her genuine smile belied a fierce determination to make sure that every student under her care felt safe, respected and needed.
With the return to school the day after New Year’s, the first day back since Amy’s passing, came the true acceptance of her permanent absence – from our hallways, our classrooms and our lives. It would be a hard day, and as I was driving to work, I began recalling another loss 43 years earlier when I walked the halls of Eden not as a teacher, but as a young student.
On a spring morning in 1975, I entered my seventh-grade English class like every other day. Mr. Bermingham, our ebullient, charismatic teacher, was not there. In fact, 10 minutes went by before our principal announced that our teacher would be arriving shortly.
I can’t recall much else from that day, but he never showed up.
The next day, a substitute sat at his desk, and we learned that, suddenly, our teacher was gone. A dedicated runner who daily jogged through a wooded path behind his house before school, Mr. Bermingham had fallen through a frozen pond and drowned. At the age of 42, he left a wife, seven children and a school full of seventh-graders struggling to accept that the man who enthralled them with interactive lessons and wild stories had just vanished from their lives. Since all of his children attended Eden schools, his death sent visceral shock waves through the district.
At the close of that first day back, I sat at my desk thinking about both Mr. Bermingham and Amy Banks.
Mr. Bermingham, a captivating storyteller, inspired my first notion of becoming a teacher. Decades later, I still sense in my own classroom theatrics his storytelling cadence and panache. And Amy, more than anything, imbued our school with hope. Her steadfast determination to forge through any difficulty, to convince the most hopeless student that things could and would get better, to show up every day ready to take on the next challenge, inspired us all.
In terms of impact, there is no hard proof if either Mr. Bermingham or Amy Banks ever once improved a student’s standardized test score. But I do know that every day they raised many a child’s spirit, boosted a colleague’s morale, and lifted their students’ eyes toward their future.
Fittingly, one of the last counselor interns Amy mentored was a former student named Kristen Bermingham, granddaughter of my former seventh-grade English teacher. She never met her grandfather, but she clearly carried his love of working with children. And she was blessed with having Amy to guide her.
Stephen Pierce is an English teacher at Eden Junior and Senior High School.