Custodian earns college degree, ‘Teacher Moms’ thrilled

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LEE COUNTY, Ala. (WRBL) – Tears of gratitude filled the halls during Wacoochee Elementary’s last day of school. The school’s beloved custodian turned special education paraprofessional had achieved his dreams of graduating college, which meant saying goodbye to the Wacoochee family as he pursues his dream of becoming a PE teacher.

The inspiring story of 26-year-old Derrick Harris begins in 2014 when he graduated from Beauregard High School. Harris’ father passed away when he was in elementary school. His grandparents helped raise him with his mom. Harris wanted to attend college, but finding a job with benefits was critical. A friend told him about a custodian job at Wacoochee Elementary. Harris was hired and immediately distinguished himself with an unstoppable work ethic and friendly demeanor.

“To know Derrick, is to love Derrick,” said teacher Julie Anne Eldred.

Quickly, Harris’ dream of attending college became a shared mission, which led to a meeting with the school’s counselor, Tracie Lane. After that meeting, Lane assembled a group of teachers to rally behind Harris. Harris calls those dedicated educators his “school moms.”

“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 killed in a car accident. So I said, ‘I want you to have this backpack because I know you will use it well,’ and we stuffed it full of school supplies. I said, you are going to fall, and that’s okay. We will be here to catch you,” said Lane.

Harris continued working his full-time job while attending school at night. The courses were challenging, but when Harris needed help, a teacher was always ready to help 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,” said Harris.

Harris worked for six years as a custodian, and school administrators saw Harris as a natural teacher with the children.

“Two years ago we hired Derrick to be 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,” said principal Stacie Reddish.

Reddish says just before WRBL came to the school to meet with Harris and interview the teachers who helped him; Harris saw the floors needed to be mopped. So that’s what he did. He steps in and fills a need, without being asked.

The 2020/2021 school year proved difficult for every teacher and student because of COVID-19. For Harris, his last college semester proved even more challenging as he faced a personal crisis, again and again.

“He lost his grandfather, and nine months later, he lost his grandmother and then walked the stage that next week to graduate,” said Lane.

Harris says the year was challenging. As always, he found love and support at Wacoochee Elementary.

“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.

The moment was a college degree and plans to attend AUM’s Physical Education Teaching program. This week, Wacoochee held a surprise graduation and farewell party for Harris. Hundreds of students and teary-eyed teachers lined the halls and hugged Harris as he walked by in his cap and gown. Harris’ sucess became their sucess too. Students saw firsthand how determination through adversity could lead to prosperity.

The week is bittersweet for Harris and his Wachoocee family. Harris’ last day was Friday. He starts Auburn University in Montgomery next week and has accepted a Physical Education assistant position within Opelika City Schools at West Forrest.

“It will be difficult to see him go, but we are thrilled his next role is one step closer to his dream of becoming a PE teacher,” said Reddish.

Harris and his “school moms” are a walking example of a brightly colored billboard that hangs in the hallways. The sign reads, “Believe in yourself, and you will be unstoppable.”

Congratulations, Derrick Harris. You are unstoppable.

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