School custodian Wanda Smith had always dreamed of being a teacher. True to her motto to ‘Never give up,’ at age 47, she earned her degree. And today, she teaches in the same school that she’d once cleaned!
Standing with her Brenham, Texas, high school graduating class of 1981, Wanda Lott felt giddy with excitement. That coming fall, she would start college — the first in her family to attend — and be on her way to making her dream of becoming a teacher come true. But then, after finishing just one semester, her mother, Dorothy Ann, became severely ill with diabetes. A single mom, she’d been raising Wanda and her two younger sisters on her own. She’s going to need help now, Wanda realized.
It broke her heart, but Wanda knew what she had to do. She dropped out of school.
I can always go back, Wanda told herself. Family comes first.
For the Love of Family
Wanda spent the next several years caring for her mother and serving as a surrogate mom to her sisters. She helped pay the bills by working various jobs — at an ice-cream parlor, pizza place, chicken restaurant, and in a facility for people with disabilities. Wanda was too busy to wallow in sadness over what she’d given up. Besides, she’d always believed you play the cards you are dealt and just do what you have to do.
By the time her sisters were gown, Wanda had fallen in love with Darron Smith. They married in 1992, and soon after, Wanda gave birth to their first son, and two more children followed. With her mother also still very ill, family responsibilities remained her priority.
Darron worked as a custodian in the Brenham Independent School District near Houston, so Wanda applied for and got the same job. Later, she also worked as a bus monitor.
But working in the school, Wanda’s dream of becoming a teacher began to bubble back up until f inally, she shared her longing with her husband.
“Why don’t you do it?” Darron asked her.
“Well, I’m too old, first of all,” replied Wanda, who was 37 at the time. “I’ve got the kids. I’ve got…”
“No, no more excuses,” Darron told Wanda. “We’re going to make this work.” Wanda felt a rush of excitement.
He’s right. I’m going to do it, she decided.
Living Her calling
In 2000, Wanda enrolled in night classes at Blinn College, in Brenham, Texas, where she had started 20 years earlier. It was a grueling schedule, with working all day, then going to class and returning home to her kids and household chores.
There were times Wanda thought about giving up. Especially when, in 2001, she lost her mother, and not long after, both of her sisters. But then Wanda remembered how proud they were when she went back to school. They believed in me, she thought.
I’ve got this, she’d tell herself. I’ve got the will. God will provide the way.
Wanda earned her associate’s degree in 2004. Then she went on to Sam Houston State University — commuting more than an hour away from home — for her bachelor’s degree. It was a long, tough journey, but Wanda stuck with it and, in 2010 — at age 47 — she earned her teaching degree.
As if fated, Brenham Elementary School — Kellie B. Gormly had an opening for a pre-K teacher. Wanda applied, and, to her immeasurable joy, she got the job.
The teachers on staff, now her colleagues, were thrilled. “You did it!” they congratulated her. “We’re so proud of you.”
Today, Wanda teaches first grade and is adored by the children. During the pandemic, she would deliver schoolwork and even food to students’ homes.
Her dedication and perseverance has earned her the respect and admiration of her community. They nominated her and she was honored on NBC’s Today show during Teacher Appreciation Week.
Brenham’s mayor designated a Wanda Smith Day to promote her motto: “Be the Best You Can Be” and her alma mater even created a scholarship in her name for their teaching students.
Kim Rocka, principal at Brenham Elementary, calls Wanda a “phenomenal inspiration for all of us.”
Wanda, herself, looks back on her journey with a sense of wonder.
“It wasn’t easy being a mom and a wife and a caregiver and a sister and a daughter. And a student too? It was hard,” Wanda says. “But like I tell my kids all the time, ‘Never give up. Just work as hard as you can and be the best that you can be.’”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.