Raising the Moon with Her Fingertips
Shannon Harriman is Assistant Principal of Hilton Head Island Middle School. I have been told she is an innovative administrator who "thinks out of the box." When I call to make the appointment she says we can meet Tuesday afternoon when she gets out of "after school detention." I quip, "If you're that bad this should be an interesting interview." Her laugh vibrates through the phone line.
Walking through the halls to her office I inhale the "end of day" fusty institutional smell of school. It never changes. Ms. Harriman appears at the end of a long corridor to greet me. Even at a distance, she pulsates with energy. On this chilled, rainy day her lime green shirt and floral skirt amplify her brightness and vitality. Her open-toed heels briskly click on the linoleum floor as she sweeps me into her large office. Her toenails are painted a metallic blue with an elaborate design. Her face is so animated and her dimples so prominent, my own face responds like a mirror to her myriad of expressions.
Suddenly, her expression alters. She sighs, "I'm incredibly nervous about talking to you. To understand why I'm here"-her gesture indicates this school with 950 students all of whose names she knows-"I have to tell you about my childhood. It's a sad story and it's hard for me to tell it. But it's time. It's the only way to make sense of what I'm doing here and why."
Shannon started life as an unwanted pregnancy born to unprepared teenagers. Her parents married. They divorced when she was four-years-old. Shannon was a highly intelligent, precocious child. Her young mother wasn't equipped to handle her. Shannon shuttled back and forth between parents and schools feeling unwanted and unloved. In 6th grade, while staying with her father, she was molested by her alcoholic grandfather. She told her father what happened. She determined she would never let it happen again. She left his house for good. She was shuffled among other family members, but only remembers her paternal grandmother as a "safe place." She went to 17 schools before graduating early from high school in Columbia, SC. With heartbreaking understatement she says, "It was hard for me to stabilize."
Shannon takes a deep breath, "The point is I always felt like school was my salvation, a place I could escape where I came from. At school I had value and worth. It was where I could be a star." She admits to being feisty and rebellious with a raging indignation towards injustice. In 8th grade she climbed on her desk and shouted she had a right as an American citizen to a free and public education. (This might have been after being suspended) She was adamant that she would not be a victim. She talks about a special teacher, Ms. Levy. "After I was sexually abused, she told me 'You were dealt a band hand. Now you have to learn to fight it on your terms.'"
She fought by excelling at school. She attended Columbia College, an all-women's school in Columbia, SC, where she "found a family and was free to wallow in my own brain." She graduated with a degree in English and a secondary teaching certificate. Later she earned a master's degree in Educational Administration. She acknowledges that her search for love and approval made her serious and driven. Shannon married and had children. She homeschooled.
She had a "major paradigm switch" when her only daughter-youngest of four children and now in 3rd grade-was born. Shannon became very anxious, overcome by a relentless sense of how dangerous the world was for children. She suspected this was unresolved stuff from her past. "I was hiding from my own truth and not modeling the strong woman I want to be. That's when I knew I needed to be working inside the school system protecting children." She started teaching English at Hilton Head High School and has been assistant principal at the middle school for three years.
"My own experience taught me not to pigeonhole kids. I don't see their limitations. I see opportunity." (Ms. Levy is fully rewarded) "The kids know I won't lie to them. I call them on their BS and I don't tolerate 'I can't'". They also experience her genuine care and understanding. They call her Mama Harriman.
As a mother, teacher and now administrator she has learned to counter her structured, serious side by being purposefully whimsical. "A structured personality is not the way to connect with people, particularly vulnerable kids who need to trust me." She laughs at herself when she admits to "working hard" at being whimsical. At some point during the school day you might see her dancing down the halls or singing at the top of her lungs to one of her recalcitrant students. "School was my salvation growing up and it's my calling now. How many people are fortunate enough to have so many people to love?"
She's quiet. I tell her I find her story remarkably strong. She doesn't have a relationship with her father, but she says, "I'm very lucky to have my mother in my life. I appreciate how hard things were for her. Plus, she exalts in her grandchildren."
"There's so much I want to do for my students and my own children. I want them to experience joy. I want to experience joy! What I really want is to be Mama Harriman, the mother who raises the moon with her fingertips."
Earliest Years: lived at Palmetto Bluff during the late Union Camp Era; her father cared for the hunting dogs.
Having fun: after college she followed a man to Ohio and "started to have fun" for the first time. He's now her husband.
Kids: their kids range in age from 21 to 8.
Appreciative of: the incredible, caring adults at her school.