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ESP-of-the-Year Helen Cottongim Speech

Transcript of Speech Delivered at the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly 

Good afternoon.

I am so proud to be here addressing the 2010 NEA/RA on this 4th day of July. I take great pride in being named 2010 NEA ESP of the year.

I want to share with you what a crazy time it was for my family the week that I won this award. I received my award at the NEA/ESP Conference in Las Vegas on March 12th, a Friday night and then flew home on a red-eye the next night to be with my family because my two children were about to undergo surgery.

We were very emotional and excited on that Monday, March 15. My daughter Regina was going to donate a kidney to her brother Jason. The back story is that Jason had been on dialysis for 6 years. Our doctors told us that Regina would not be a suitable donor for him because of some health problems she had in her teenage years.

But then, as Jason’s health began to fail last fall, Regina contacted a genetic specialist at University Hospital who told her, if she was a match, there was no reason she could not give him a kidney. Long story short: she was a perfect match. And I am thrilled to tell you that they are both doing very well.

As part of my award I received a check for $10,000 from the Gardner-Rich foundation, so I donated $5000 to the American Kidney Fund. At the time, the Kidney Fund had a matching grant--3 dollars for every one dollar donated--so my $5000 donation was worth $15,000 to the fund. As you might imagine, being honored by NEA has somewhat been overshadowed by what’s going on with my children’s health, but it’s finally starting to sink in that I am the NEA ESP of the Year.

I started driving a school bus in 1972. When I decided I wanted to become a school bus driver, I went to the local bus garage to apply. The application was pretty straightforward: it consisted of a name, address, and a phone number. The salary? A hundred dollars a month. Training? That was my pre-employment road test. The director of transportation went out on the bus lot and started a bus, one that was so old it could have been used to transport our founding fathers.

"Let’s take a ride," he said, "and see if you can drive this thing." So we did. We drove around for a few miles, and returned to the bus lot. When I parked the bus, he only had one question: "Can you be here at tomorrow at 6 a.m.?"

Actually, I showed up at 5:45 am, and he sent me to drive for a bus driver who had recently broken his ankle.

The driver stood in the step well and was kind enough to serve as my personal GPS navigator, as he gave me turn by turn instructions.

As my fellow bus drivers know, you never let anyone stand in the step well, right? It’s against every safety regulation. But what did either of us know back then? We hadn’t received any training.

So as I drove, he navigated along this very rural bus route, and rural, by the way, is a polite way of saying that we were driving on a goat path along a creek bed. The regular driver stood in the step well observing my driving skills; he asked me a question: "How are you shifting without scraping the gears?"

I told him, as a matter of fact, that I was double clutching - everyone knows what that is. He glanced down at my feet and said, "Oh, I didn’t know there was another clutch.” This was my first attempt at driver training.

I only drove as a sub for about nine days before I was assigned to my own bus route. And I was so excited about driving the big vehicle. And then I realized I had to transport students.

I had no idea what to do with them, let alone keep order on the bus. My only saving grace was that I grew up on a farm and started driving a farm tractor at nine years old. Driving was the easy part.

Being in control of the students was another story. It took me about five years before I realized that I was in charge.

Of course, by then, some of the older students had graduated and I had developed some disciplinary skills on my own. I felt like the first five years I just drove the bus and hoped to get everybody to and from safely. I drove that same bus route for the best part of 25 years.

I have driven three generations of students. I knew their cats and dogs, their grandmas and grandpas, their aunts and uncle. I probably knew much more about their families than their parents could ever have imagined. The kids told me stuff that if their parents knew, they could not have faced me in the grocery store.

I was invited to graduations and weddings and expected to be at funerals. My route was one of those very rural routes that I spoke of earlier.

Oftentimes children had to walk down long lanes to get to the main road. In the wintertime, they did not have hats or gloves. Some did not have lunch money or school supplies. But they knew they could come to me when they were in need.

Once when I was interviewed and was asked "How do you know you are successful in your job?" I thought about it for just a minute and remembered two little girls who were sisters telling me one day that they liked to play school bus driver. And when they played, they fought over which one was going to be me. To me that spoke volumes. As they say imitation is the best form of flattery. Today those little girls are grown women in their thirties with children of their own.

I knew early on that I was destined to do something with this bus driving job, though I had not a clue what it was.

One morning, as I parked my bus in my driveway, I thought to myself, if there is ever any place to go with this job, I’m going. I became a driver trainer in 1984 and I thought I had arrived. In 1990 I received national certification in driver training.

My Association work began in 1985 at a meeting with a teacher/bus driver and a KEA staffer who wanted to organize ESP. I agreed to serve on a task force to put together a plan.

I designed the KESPA logo and wrote the slogan, "The Backbone of Education is Support Personnel." I was elected president of the Kentucky Education Support Personnel Association in 1987 and served as president until 1993. That’s when I was elected to the NEA Board of Directors ESP at large. During that time I served on lots of committees (you all know how that goes). I served on the KEA board, lobbied the legislature, and helped to get a tenure bill passed for ESP along with other health care and retirement benefits, for all school employees.

Each time I accomplished a task or won a victory for public education; I felt I had achieved the goal that I set that early fall morning in 1972. But without a doubt, my greatest honor was being named NEA ESP of the year this March. As I stand here before you today, I know I have arrived. But you know-just as I know- just being here is not enough, and each one of us must decide to become an advocate for children and public education. Each of us has had that defining moment, a moment when we knew we had to stand tall for what is important and right.

Today we are faced with the old enemies that keep coming back to hurt us: not enough money to fund our school systems, poor health care, and vanishing retirement benefits. Every time you turn the TV on, the news is bad, the economy has not rebounded the way we would have wanted it to do. We are being asked to do more with less, teach without text books, work in overcrowded classrooms.

Many of our jobs threatened by merit pay and evaluations based on unrealistic test scores that do not reflect the true value of the education that our students receive. ESP jobs are being used to balance budgets. Food service, custodial and transportation are being contracted out. When these service jobs leave our school systems, it is our students who will suffer. Most ESP live in the communities where they work.

Without jobs their children don’t have health care and many will be on free and reduced lunches. Many already are. I am not telling you anything you already don’t know. What I am telling you is that we cannot afford to rest. If you are not already an Association addict, who cares about kids and public schools, you must become one. And you should encourage everyone you know to get on board.

Public education and the future of America’s children are counting on all of us--you and me pulling together--to provide them the best possible education. Now, we must turn our hopes into action.

I want to share with you a poem I read when I ran for my second term on the NEA board. It’s called "My Load." When you hear this poem, you will know why you and I do what we do and why I am so honored and proud to be your NEA ESP of the year.

The poem is called “My Load.”


    I drive a school bus every day. My route is forty miles.

    If asked about my load, I’ say, "They’re all in need of smiles".

    My load consists of every kind-the timid and the strong.

    Let me recall them in my mind, as we roll along.

    A big, tall strapping, football star; a bandsman in the rear;

    A boy with roaches in a jar, a pencil behind his ear.

    An addict’s child, who quietly cries, along the way to school.

    Is later taunted by other guys, insensitive and cruel.

    A vagabond; a gifted child sit one beside the other.

    A dark-haired youth with manners mild assists his crippled brother.

    A mother-soon-to-be just sits and stares. (I wonder what she’s thinking.)

    An angry young man sits and glares. Remembers mother’s drinking.

    Some country kids take life in stride: they never seem defected.

    A few are leaders—filled with pride and by their peers respected.

    A barefoot lad with dirty face-no breakfast has he eaten.

    One girl sits quietly in her place- the night before was beaten.

    The others, individuals, too: Hispanic, Black, and Asian; three Indians, (who knows, maybe Sioux) the rest of them Caucasian.

    I drive a school bus every day. My route is forty miles.

    If asked about my load, I’d say, "They are all in need of smiles.”

    It’s up to me to set the pace: To cheer them all the while.

    So as they run in Life’s great race, they run hard every mile.


Thank you



Helen Cottongim, 2010 ESP of the Year

Helen Cottongim, 2010 ESP of the Year, addresses delegates at the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly.

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