Within the chaos of flying salt and flour and distorted outlines of the state of Texas, a stark clarity came into focus for Amber Ramsey.
As Ramsey, now a fourth-grade teacher, guided her students through the geography activity, she recalled doing the project as a fourth-grade student in Katie Stevens’ class at Decatur Elementary (now Rann).
The salt dough map, which denotes the geographic elements of the state, is a trademark lesson most of Stevens’ students can recall.
The project is just a drop amid a flood of impressions students, colleagues and friends remember of the 32-year educator who lost a 13-year battle with breast cancer last Sunday. The longtime fourth-grade teacher had most recently worked as a math intervention specialist for the Decatur school district before retiring in 2009 to focus on her health.
This week, her colleagues – many of them former students – reflected on the area native’s caring ways, kindness and resilience through the four bouts with the disease since being diagnosed in 2000.
Ramsey, a 2003 Decatur High School graduate, earned a degree in early childhood education from Texas Christian University in 2007, then returned to her roots. She taught not only at the same school she attended, but ended up in the same classroom in which she had Stevens as a teacher.
To further cement the connection, Stevens was assigned as Ramsey’s mentor to help the new teacher through her first two years at the front of the classroom.
“It was really special to be able to get to know her again as an adult and really become close with her,” said Ramsey, now a fourth-grade math teacher at Young Elementary. “It took me a while to call her Katie. I always wanted to call her Mrs. Stevens.”
Whether as a student, at a desk addressing Mrs. Stevens, or at a podium before the class being mentored by Katie, Stevens’ influence on Ramsey was always apparent.
“She was very, very encouraging,” Ramsey said. “Before my first observation by the principal, she stayed up with me the night before to explain the process and talked me through my lesson to make sure I was comfortable going into it. She went above and beyond to make sure I felt confident. Afterward, she made sure to tell me she had heard good things said about me in the office. She was good at spreading positivity.
“She would always tell me, ‘I know you’re a young teacher, but I believe in you. You have a gift, and you can do great things’,” Ramsey recalled. “She told me not to let other people’s perceptions of a situation keep me from doing what I’m able to do. That will always stick with me.”
Ramsey is only one of many teachers Stevens took under her wing when they embarked on their careers at the oldest of Decatur’s three elementary schools.
When fourth-grade teacher Nelly Fine came to Rann in 2001, Stevens was there to show her the ropes.
“Being from this area, she knew everybody and was always introducing you to people,” Fine said. “She loved talking about the history of the area. It’s like she wanted you to feel connected. She was the most kind-hearted, friendly person, and she saw the good in all people. She was great at making you feel important and like you were a part of what was going on.”
Debby Castorena, who teaches English/language arts at Young Elementary, can attest to that inclusion.
“She was motherly and grandmotherly toward all of her students. She had high expectations, but she had 10 times more love for them,” Castorena said. “As a friend, she was the dearest friend I ever had. She was my best friend. We were like sisters. When I came to the district in 1999, she was always there to help me become acclimated.”
The bond was further strengthened when the two found themselves in similar, trying circles outside of the classroom.
Stevens was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, the most aggressive form of the disease, over spring break in 2000. During that very same school holiday the following year, Castorena was told she, too, had breast cancer.
The following year, Relay For Life of Wise County was established, and every year thereafter, the two served as co-captains of the “Friends” team. Both also participated in Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure events in Plano.
“She strongly believed, ‘Together we can make a difference’,” Castorena said. “That was her favorite saying. She believed in Relay and strongly supported the event’s purpose to eradicate cancer so that her children and dear students wouldn’t have to face it.”
And that was just like her, her colleagues and friends contend.
“No matter what, she was always caring about everyone else,” Castorena continued. “It was all about everybody else. It was God foremost, then her family and her friends and students. She was so proud of all of her past students. Before she had the stroke, she asked that I go with her to visit all the students at the Square before their prom. It was important that she go see them. She loved those kids. Goodness, she loved her kids.”
Ramsey recalls the way she saw that love reciprocated when Stevens was rediagnosed a third time in 2009. With buckets of soapy water, sponges and a stirring, student-made sign that read, “Kids need her, let’s help,” students raised more than $5,000 through a car wash.
“It was one of the most moving things I’ve seen as a teacher, just seeing how the students responded and wanted to help,” Ramsey said.
Students weren’t the only ones who valued the fun, loving, “social butterfly.”
Castorena said that after Decatur Elementary teachers were separated with the opening of Carson Elementary in 2000, Stevens began organizing “Girls Night Out” to keep in touch with friends who ended up at different campuses.
“We would get together several times a year, every year, and we would have a blast,” Castorena said. “Her friends meant a lot to her. She loved people dearly.”
Rann receptionist Alejandra Fern ndez, who was also one of Stevens’ students, recalls the nurturing atmosphere the teacher cultivated in the classroom.
“It was like a safe haven,” Fern ndez said. “She was just so sweet and motherly. Even when I came back to work here in 2009, she gave me that same comfort. She cared, and you just knew she did. She was a sweet, sweet lady.”
But her tender, protective demeanor wasn’t confined to the classroom – or even school building. Stevens’ guiding light shone on anyone who needed her help, including parents of students like Nancy Eoff.
Eoff’s daughter, Kaitlin, was in Stevens’ class when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, shortly after the teacher.
“She was about two or three treatments ahead of me, and I would ask her questions of what to expect,” Eoff recalled. “She would let me know what’s coming up and helped prepare me for losing my hair, the effects of chemo, things like that. And she helped my daughter. She watched out for her and helped her cope.”
One particular incident stands out in her mind.
“They wrote little poems in class, and she encouraged Kaitlin to write her poem about all that I was going through,” Eoff said. “I had a lot of problems during my treatment, getting thrush. In her poem, my daughter wrote how she would ‘be happy when my mom’s tongue was pink again and not white.’ It was kind of funny, cancer through the eyes of a fourth grader. But Katie encouraged her and was there for her. It helped Kaitlin learn what to expect with me because she had already seen it with her teacher. She would tell me, ‘It’s going to be OK, Mom.’ I know a lot of that came from watching Mrs. Stevens.”
As all those whose lives have been touched by the beloved teacher, colleague, fighter and friend prepared to pay their respects, they took comfort in the gift of her memory and strength of her faith.
“She’s a legacy,” Castorena said. “As a teacher, she was the very best. She gave it her all. As a friend, she was the most selfless, most loving friend. As a Christian, she was devout and ready to meet Jesus. She knew God had a special plan for her, and she said that when He called her, she would be ready.”
Fine added: “I loved her strong Christian beliefs. She was always loving on people, and she always gave God the glory for everything. When things looked bad, she always found the positive and fervently believed it was a part of His plan.
“She will be greatly missed. But we know she is no longer suffering, which is a blessing.”