The Heart of Education
by Laurie McCall Photography by Christian Lee
The Heart of Education
Dr. Cynthia Hayes (or Mama Cyn as she is called by some) grew up on a farm in Greeleyville, S.C. She, her three sisters and her brother all shared one bedroom. The whole family would wake up at 4:00 a.m. and head out into the fields to pick cotton, using the headlights from the truck to be able to see. They worked until it was time to get cleaned up and go to school. I asked her if they were in bed by 6:00 p.m. She laughed, “We were still in the fields working. We worked from sun up ‘til sun down when we weren’t in school.” She recalls how they lived off the land, hunting, canning vegetables and taking hogs to the market for slaughter. They did not have running water or a bathroom in the house until she was in 6th grade. Once her grandmother came to live with them, her parents moved their bed into the living room. “We were poor, but I didn’t know the difference. It was a lot of hard work, but we had fun together. We were close.”
When asked if she had always known she would become a teacher, Dr. Hayes said, “Well, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in Greeleyville. School was kind of the center of everything, and my parents taught us the importance of education. My sisters and I would play school, and I always wanted to be the teacher,” but that role was reserved for her older sisters. Her parents showed their children how much they believed in education by going back to school to earn their diplomas at the same time Cynthia and her siblings were earning theirs. Her oldest sister was the first in the family to graduate from college. She became a teacher and the rest followed suit.
Cynthia went on to earn her Doctorate in Education while working as everything from a classroom teacher, to Special Education Coordinator, to Assistant Superintendent. As we talked about each of those roles she said, “I wanted to know everything about our community. I wanted to know about every agency in our county and what services they could provide.” If she discovered a need that wasn’t being met, then she would put together a team to develop, coordinate and implement a program to meet that need, including initiatives such as the Behavior Management Specialists Program in Beaufort County, as well as the Ronald McDonald Dental Van. As impressive as her resume is, her heart is that much more impressive.
After 37 years, she is back in the classroom doing what she does best, pursuing the hearts and minds of young people. “You have to meet people where they are and bring them along. A lot of times the expectation is that people know what you know and can do what you do.” Every morning at Right Choice School, Beaufort County’s alternative school, she makes the rounds in the cafeteria, checking on students, asking them questions, listening to their stories, searching for that connection and building relationships. She often has a student tucked up under her arm like a baby chick. A couple of hours later, that same kid may have lost all sense of rationality and be on a rampage to which she responds with both strength and grace. Sometimes the situation means, “Don’t make me call your ____________.” You can fill in the blank, because if you’re a kid in Beaufort County, she likely knows your mama, your daddy, your grandma, your cousin, your uncle, your aunty and everyone else in your family. That can straighten up a kid real fast. Other times, she’s a picture of self-control as words swarm out of kids’ mouths like angry hornets, and she’s immune to the sting. She can make a student feel completely accepted on his worst day. It’s that kind of unconditional love that can bring the toughest kid to tears. It’s that kind of unconditional love that defines Mama Cyn.
Family: Married to Stanley, has one son, Conrad, and one daughter, Casey
Favorite Hobbies: Crossword puzzles, playing cards—Spades and Tonk—and growing flowers
Soaring Travels: Has been to Hawaii and Mexico and would love to visit France someday
Favorite Shopping sprees: Clothes, shoes, pocketbooks, dishes and Thomas Blackshear figurines
A Dedicated Member of: Delta Sigma Theta! Served as President from 1996-2000 & 2012-2014. Has served as Vice-President and Treasurer. Received Delta of the Year Award in 1998 and 2014.