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News Briefs - Turning Horror into Hope

With a bullet lodged in her hip, NEA-Retired member Pam Simon lay in her Tucson, Arizona, hospital bed and thought about hope.

It was Sunday, January 9, 24 hours after the shooting at a Tucson Safeway that left six dead and 14 wounded, including Simon. The retired teacher and longtime education advocate is a passionate supporter and friend of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in the attack. Simon wondered what good could come of the tragedy.

“What I kept coming back to is, I’m a teacher,” she says. She remembered staff meetings at Marana Middle School—the same school gunman Jared Loughner attended—at which she and her fellow educators discussed students that they thought desperately needed help. At times, they felt frustrated and ineffective. In the aftermath of the violence, education, where Simon has invested her energy for years, is also where she continues to summon hope.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, and maybe that’s why the bullet went where it did,” she says.

On the fateful Saturday morning, Simon, Giffords’ Community Outreach Coordinator, helped set up the staff’s “Congress on Your Corner” event at the store.

When shots rang out, Simon says things happened in slow motion—she saw Giffords crumple, she felt herself get hit in the forearm and chest and fall, amidst chaos and screaming. After surgery, doctors told her the bullet had missed her vital organs, chipping her pelvic bone. She had been lucky.

The next day, Simon says, she began her “odyssey of healing and sadness and joy.” Healing has been slow. Weeks after her six-day hospital stay, Simon was still sore and tired. But the emotional wounds, especially the loss of her close friend, Community Outreach Director Gabe Zimmerman, are worse.

Joy has emerged in the outpouring of support from Simon’s family, Giffords’ staff and volunteers, former students, and cards from National Education Association affiliates.

On Wednesday, January 12, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Simon in her hospital room.

“The president knew I had been a teacher,” she says. “I told them how as an educator, there are times when you see kids who are troubled . . . [and] clearly need psychological counseling. We often felt like there was so little we could do.”

Simon said Michelle Obama agreed that helping teachers assist troubled students is something “we all need to work on.”

That evening, Simon, on special release from the hospital, attended the memorial service for the victims of the shooting.

“I was wheeled in and got a huge welcome,” she says. “It was the best medicine anyone could give.”

She got a hug from President Obama after the tribute, and, worried about maneuvering the crowd in her exhausted state, she even asked if he could give her a ride to the hospital.

“He threw his head back and laughed. He snapped his fingers and said, ‘Pam and her family need to get back to the hospital. Make it happen.’ The Secret Service put us in a car, and zoomed us back to the hospital,” says Simon.

Perhaps Simon’s candor came from years of working alongside politicians, first through the Arizona Education Association and then on Giffords’ staff. It all started when, after spending a decade as a “soccer mom” and PTA president, she met her daughter’s elementary school teacher, Barbara Matteson, who saw a spark in her.

“She had a lot of interest in teaching, and she was very enthused about politics,” says Matteson, the current president of NEA-Retired. “I encouraged her to get involved in the Association. As NEA has always said, every education decision is a political decision.”

Matteson called on Simon to be her long-term substitute when she attended the Democratic National Convention in 1988. From there, Simon—armed with fresh credits from the University of Arizona—began teaching English full-time. Along the way, she became a union leader. As vice president and later president of the local Marana Education Association, she got to know Arizona legislators well.

“The very first meeting I went to, Gabrielle Giffords was serving as a young legislator. She was always easy to talk to and she really listened,” says Simon. The two became fast friends, and Simon promised Giffords if she ever ran for Congress, she’d be there to help. Sure enough, in January 2006, Simon found someone to watch her class and raced to a local hotel to hear Giffords announce her candidacy—then she got to work rallying her fellow educators for support.

Once Giffords won, Simon’s first act as Community Outreach Coordinator was to set up two town hall meetings with teachers. Simon is convinced that Giffords will be back in her community soon. “I know Gabby, she’s a fighter,” Simon says. “I believe there is going to be a significant role for her raising awareness about [mental health] issues.”

Simon isn’t focusing anger or bitterness toward Loughner; she wishes students like him could be better supported. She’s calling on teachers to demand training and assistance for identifying early signs of mental illness. Districts, she hopes, will open conversations about it.

“It’s also important that legislators hear our stories,” she says. “If this tragedy can serve that good, those lives won’t be lost in vain.”

--Meredith Barnett

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1-Mar-11

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