Harper’s Unsung Heroes

October 2023

Written by Gale Fischer

 

Nothing That’s Worth the Effort Ever Comes Easy

“An excuse is nothing more than a self-imposed roadblock.”

— C.C Chapman

Life provides opportunities filled with happiness. These moments of joy sometimes come in big packages that are years in the making but life’s simple pleasures are there for the taking for all as well. Despite all of the blessings that life offers, each of us has experienced hardship on some level. Drudgery can dish out discomfort but it can also provide opportunities for growth. Adversity exists for all but the mountain that one must climb is higher for some. This month’s Harper Unsung Hero, Maria Kloosterman has navigated more obstacles than most on her journey that ultimately led her to teaching. 

Maria was born into a family of migrant workers and a world without monetary wealth. Maria reflects on some of her first memories. “I was born in Arcadia, Florida in 1969. I was the third oldest in my family with five brothers and two sisters. My youngest memory was my first day of kindergarten. It was very traumatic when I walked into the classroom. Everyone looked different than me. They were white and my skin color was darker.”  It wasn’t just her physical features that made Maria feel out of place.  “Everyone spoke English which isolated me even more. Both of my parents moved to the States from Mexico as teenagers and Spanish, our native language, was spoken primarily in our home.” The transition from speaking Spanish only, to being fluent in two languages finally came for Maria. “My parents both learned to speak English but my dad picked it up quicker than my mom because he interacted with others outside of the family more than mom. All of my siblings eventually learned English as well. At home, we spoke Spanish primarily. I started to learn English when I began school and by the time I was in fourth grade I was proficient.” 

Maria’s parents both moved from Mexico as teenagers to Florida with their families in search of a better life. They met each other working in the fields of Florida’s fruit industry. Cultural differences regarding public education in Mexico shaped an attitude of work ethic for her family. “My dad went to school through the sixth grade in Mexico but did not continue formal education once he moved to Florida. Even though my dad did not graduate from high school he was very smart. My mom did not attend school in Mexico. School is not free in Mexico and my mom’s parents couldn’t afford to send her to school.”

Much of Maria’s extended family had moved to Florida as well and they all lived in the same neighborhood in Arcadia. Everyone, including children, spent time working in the fields. Maria describes how the cultural traditions that her family brought with them from Mexico and the need to provide support in terms of income determined the amount of education she and her siblings received. “My oldest brother went to school through sixth grade and then was pulled out to work in the fields. My second oldest brother went to school through seventh grade before being pulled out to work in the fields.”

Maria and her siblings would become immersed in the new culture they were introduced to through the American school system but she also has fond childhood memories from her early years living in Florida that were based on her Mexican heritage. “Our diet as a child always consisted of traditional Mexican food. I learned how to make tortillas and how to cook at a young age.” Beyond the duties she was given in the kitchen, Maria also took on other responsibilities, helping out with caring for her younger siblings. 

She and her siblings did not participate in any extracurricular activities growing up but Maria recalls some cherished childhood memories outside of working in the fields and going to school. “My siblings and my cousins would play outside together when we had time. Our extended family lived close together so we spent much of our time with cousins. Spending time with extended family has always been a huge part of our culture. One of my favorite activities that we would do as an extended family was play Mexican bingo. We would use pinto beans as bargaining chips.” 

Maria would eventually go on to earn her high school diploma but she was still expected to work in the fields with the rest of her family. “Around the time I started middle school, I began working in the fields in the summertime. During the school year, I would go to school and then my parents would pick me up from school to pick apples and oranges for a few hours each night.” It wasn’t as simple as attending the same school every day for Maria and her siblings. Maria reflects on the inconsistencies and gaps in her childhood educational experience. “Although Florida was our home base we would move around to Michigan and Ohio for a few weeks each harvest season to work in the fields. I would attend school sporadically in Michigan and Ohio and then return to Florida weeks after the school year started and try to catch up.”  The inconsistencies that Maria faced in her kindergarten through high school education and the many missed days of attendance were yet another cog that isolated her from her classmates. She made the best of it. It seemed that perseverance became a character trait that would guide her as a child and as an adult. 

Maria seemed to enjoy school despite the challenges that it presented for her. She was always eager to learn new things and develop skills. “Some things in school were hard for me because I didn’t always comprehend what I needed to know. Reading was a challenge for me because we didn’t have books in the house growing up. Even though I had difficulty reading I always enjoyed it. It was a way for me to learn new things.”  There may not have been books in Maria’s home growing up but there were other opportunities to hone her reading skills. Her father had copies of Reader's Digest which she would often look through. As a child reading became a resource for her to learn about her world but it grew on her in other ways. As a middle-aged adult reading has turned into one of Maria’s favorite activities. She still reads for information but loves just to read for enjoyment.

It wasn’t just reading and academics that Maria struggled with in elementary and middle school. Maria reflects on how a transient life of spending summers in Michigan and Ohio with the remainder of the year in Florida impacted the intricacies of social development as a child. “It was hard to make friends and be accepted. I would make some friends but because of missed school during harvest season and then moved back to Florida, it was difficult to develop long-lasting friendships. In high school, I started to foster deeper friendships. I lacked confidence when I was younger so I was quiet.”

Despite all of the challenges that school presented her with and the stigma that no members of her family had ever experienced college, post-high school education was something that Marie thought about often. “When I was in high school I was very much looking forward to going to college. My parents didn't think college was an option for anyone in our family, especially females. My dad’s employer talked to me about college and encouraged me this way but my parents didn’t think it was appropriate.” 

College may have been a pipe dream at best, but Maria never bought into the philosophy that she or others in her family were not destined to attend college. Her dreams of earning a degree took a major blow, however, before she finished her junior year of high school. Maria explains how her dreams of continuing her education were put on hold. “We were in Michigan when I was sixteen for harvest season. I met Jonathon who was also working in the fields with us in Michigan, harvesting apples. Jonathan, who had initially become friends with my older brother, and I started to hang out more and more. Before my family returned to Florida I became pregnant with Jonathan’s baby.”

Maria’s pregnancy catapulted her into perhaps the biggest transition in her young life obviously with motherhood just nine months away but it also changed her life in another way. She and her parents would not be sharing the same zip code. “I stayed in Michigan with Jonathan and my parents went back to Florida at the end of the fall harvest season. I was only lacking one credit going into my senior year so I was able to graduate from high school in Michigan just a few months before Tyler was born. Johnathon and I were married before Tyler was born.”

Jonathan couldn’t find work in Michigan and soon Maria, Jonathan, and Tyler were packing their bags. “About a year after Tyler was born Jonathan and I moved to Florida where Jonathan got a job at a sulfur mine.” Jonathan and Maria’s family started growing more and it seemed that her hopes of earning a college degree were lost. Maria was now a wife and full-time mom. “When Tyler started kindergarten I became pregnant with our second child, Jonathan. Two years later Christina was born.”

Not long before Christina was born tragedy would strike and the lives of Maria and her children would be forever changed. Maria reflects on her unknown future.“Six months before Christiana was born Jonathan had an accident at work and was killed. I was now a widow with three young kids. My parents had moved up to Michigan in 1986 so I moved back to Michigan so that they could help me. I initially thought I would go to Michigan with the kids for just the summer but ultimately felt it was better to stay permanently. I bought a house two miles away from my parents in Augusta. I had life insurance from Jonathan’s accident which was just enough for a down payment on a house.”

Had Jonathan not passed away, Maria may have never considered earning a college degree but his accident changed her outlook on life. “I knew that I needed to find a career to financially support my kids. Teaching seemed like a perfect fit for raising kids.” Teaching was something that Maria never imagined doing. As a single mother, there wasn’t a more viable option that would align her schedule with that of her children. Choosing to be a teacher was a matter of convenience but after more than two decades in the classroom, it seems that Maria found her calling. 

 

Maria enrolled in school and her new future began. “I started at KCC and earned my associate's degree in 1996. From there I transferred to WMU, earning a degree in Early Elementary Education in 2000. I was able to get many scholarships as a non-traditional student and being a single parent. I was fortunate and didn't have to pay anything for my education.”

Although her tuition was free there was still sacrifice. Maria talks about the challenges for her and her children during the time she was in college. “I worked part-time at Hillcrest Apple Orchard to make ends meet. I missed a lot of time with my kids when they were younger but made up for this time after I graduated.” 

During the time that Maria was a college student, she found love again. “My husband’s best friend, Eric Farkas, offered support to me after Jonathon passed away. Both of us were trying to deal with the loss of a loved one. We would hang out as friends and began dating in 1996. We were married in 2000.”

Maria was able to start her new life as a wife and as a teacher at the same time. “After graduating from WMU I started teaching for Harper Creek. I was hired as an elementary Spanish teacher. I taught Spanish for all three elementary schools.” Things in her life it seemed were finally going in the direction she had dreamed of as a high school student looking ahead to college. A few years into her new career as a teacher tragedy would strike again. “ Eric was in a car accident a few years after we were married. He suffered head trauma, his health was now compromised and he was never the same. After the accident, he couldn't take care of himself. He was in assisted living after the accident. He passed away in 2010.”

Although Maria had experienced the loss of a spouse already it was still not something she could have prepared for less than a decade later. Life had thrown her a curve ball again but this time she had a little more stability in her life and a job that fulfilled her soul. Maria reflects on her journey to becoming a third-grade teacher. “Being a Spanish teacher gave me experience with all grade levels. When I took the Spanish job I still intended on being a classroom teacher. Three years after I started teaching Mary DeKam retired at Wattles Park so I applied for her position and was finally a classroom teacher. I began teaching third grade in 2004 and have been teaching it since with one year in second grade.” 

When Maria decided to pursue a teaching degree she never imagined the joy it would bring to her life. She simply wanted a career that would provide financial stability for her family while also limiting the amount of time she would have to be away from her children. Her reflection on how teaching has fulfilled her life leads one to believe that she was destined to be a teacher. “Teaching has brought me nice surprises that I had not anticipated. I got into teaching because it was a great career to raise a family. As I began teaching I started seeing other benefits. I enjoy making a difference in the lives of young children. I like seeing them grow. I love the different personalities.”

Anyone who has been teaching long enough has witnessed the changes that have occurred in our profession over the years. In many ways, teaching is more challenging than it was a decade ago. Still, some moments reward us and help fuel the fire to mentor students. Maria admits that days on the job are more difficult now but she has no plans of retiring anytime soon. “Teaching has changed and I am older so teaching takes more energy from me. Even though it drains me, I still enjoy it. I love third grade and hope to teach it until I retire. I love the team that I teach with. From my upbringing, I always thought that I would work until I die. I have no immediate plans to retire.”

Maria has experienced adversity from her upbringing living in poverty and even more so as an adult with the loss of two spouses. She has no regrets and appreciates the love and support received from both Jonathon and Eric. As fate would have it she would find love again with her husband of eleven years Wally. “Wally and I met at Firekeepers while sitting at a bar watching a baseball game in 2010. We struck up a conversation and hit it off immediately. We exchanged phone numbers. We dated for two years and were married in 2012.” 

Maria’s words of advice for others are ones she has lived her life by. “Hard work and perseverance do pay off. It might not always be easy but it is worth fighting. There are great things out there waiting for you.” 

With the life experiences that Maria has faced and a personality that caters to the learning part of a child’s brain, she has made an impact on many students who have called her their teacher. Having personally spent time in her classroom through the years of co-teaching, I have learned from her. She has an uncanny ability to employ a strict policy for her students while also sharing her sense of humor to motivate them. She has broken the cycle in her family in regards to education becoming the first to graduate with a high school diploma. She didn’t stop there, also earning her BA degree in education. Perhaps what is the most fitting is that two years ago she earned her Masters's Degree in reading coming full circle from the little girl who struggled in learning to read yet also craving it. Living her life by never giving up and making no excuses even under the most undesirable circumstances provides an example for all of us including her students.




Gale Fischer has spent most of his career as a special education teacher for Wattles Park Elementary dating back to 2001. He is an avid runner and began writing the stories of local runners twelve years ago. Many of these stories have appeared in the Battle Creek Shopper and the Battle Creek Scene Magazine. Recently he started capturing the stories of Harper Creek staff members. His column, Harper Unsung Heroes, features a different staff member each month. He believes that everyone has a story that can inspire others.






 

Harper's Unsung Hero - Lauren Crockett

Lauren’s path that led her to work as a student support specialist for Beadle Lake Elementary is not a traditional journey. Experiences working with the elderly nearing the end of their time on earth, teaching youth how to implement a healthy lifestyle, being a stay-at-home mom, and working for the foster care system helped her to develop a skill set that aligns well with meeting the needs of our students.

Bond Proposal Frequently Asked Questions

Bond Proposal Frequently Asked Questions 

Harper Creek Community Schools 

Election Date: May 7, 2024 

Estimated 0.6 mill increase over the 2023 levy 

$24 million 

Harper's Unsung Hero - Maria Kloosterman