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#120 Heather Benes, Staff
(Assistant Professor of English)

“You Can Do This”, a full circle moment for me and COD. My COD Story began when I met Jack Tapleshay, a professor at College of the Desert. He was my Expository Writing Professor at Cal State San Bernardino and my first introduction to the excellence in teaching that exists here at College of the Desert.

He would say that I looked like a scared, drowned rat that first day of class. I was nervous and shaking. He sat down, made eye contact with me, and whispered, “YOU CAN do this.” He gave me my first B in that class, told me that learning was more important than a grade. He took pictures with me in my family’s absence when I received my BA in Literature, and during my Master’s Degree he became my mentor, offering to me my first pile of papers to grade. After I was hired full time to teach English here at College of the Desert, more than anything else, Professor Tapleshay became my friend, one that through much change, has never let me down, which could be another quality I strive to copy and a quality which I find in my students every day.

This year, 2012 is my community college ten-year anniversary. When I began in 2002 as a single mom, I had four kids under five years old. I had little life experience, was estranged from my family, had no job, no home, not even a car of my own. Five years later, I was graduating with my Master’s Degree with Highest honors, had a job at COD waiting, had a home, had a car, and most importantly, I had found hope. Now five years since then, my sister is finishing her AA degree at COD. My Mom is back at school at age 59 discovering her own strengths and goals, and my children are nearing the end of their early education with dreams of Doctorate degrees, world travels, and careers that surpass all I could have imagined possible not so many years ago. But my COD story is even bigger than this.

Part of learning is surviving any curve life offers and making the most of it turning it into a lesson, a moment of power or passion, and giving to others whatever gift you have acquired, even if the gift is as simple as empathy, forgiveness, or support. Last semester, I had a student who taught me what it means to be MORE than a survivor. When asked what secret he held, he told the class that he was dying of kidney failure and would go to school until his moment came. While this is extreme, many of my students have to survive and the idea is not foreign to me. My sister is a disabled vet, broken from an Army accident. I am a disabled vet, fixed and pieced together by Marine Corps magicians. Even my brother was a vet with severe PTSD, and last semester, for however brief, he too became a brand new COD student. Sadly, his battle with PTSD was lost and he ended his life before ever seeing the inside of a classroom. This happened finals week and to say that the world tipped a bit doesn’t come close. At some point, it's not about the grade …it's about what we learn from the experience and for us, my brother’s death cemented our individual goals. My Mom doubled her course load this semester with a new determination to make it. My sister has renewed her focus so that her disability does not determine her success or failure. And as a side-result of my brother’s suicide, my dying student now lives. We did a direct donation of my brother’s kidney to my student and now he, who said he’d be in school until his time was up, is in Jack Tapleshay's English 1B class planning his own graduation and transfer, a different end to his time at COD than he’d imagined.

I hosted my brother’s memorial right down the street from COD and everyone who should have been there was, to include my former student who sat healthy and strong in front of me. On his right sat my Mother and on his left sat my friend, Jack Tapleshay. He was my teacher, my mentor, and to me will always represent the very best that COD has to offer. That day at the memorial was a full circle moment. I was nervous and Jack waited until we made eye contact, then whispered “You can do this.” Just like our first encounter in the classroom so many years ago, this great Professor from College of the Desert believed in me and believed in the students he sat amongst. I thank him for teaching me to always believe not just in myself, but in others, and this is my COD story.