Shannon Burgess was fiercely loyal. If you ever needed something, she was going to do it for you or your children. She felt like she was put on the earth to serve others—and that’s just what she did every day of her life, in sickness and in health.
The longtime Edgewood Elementary teacher, who passed away in May 2016, was completely dedicated to the students she treated like her own children, but Shannon always left school right at 3:30 p.m. so that she could be heavily involved in all her two kids’ activities and with the teams her husband, Bryan, coached. “She loved teaching those kids. You could see it on her face every day,” Bryan says. “But she wouldn’t bring work home with her.”
Shannon was also very matter of fact. “She hated purple,” her best friend Brook Gibbons will tell you. “If you wore purple, she would tell you it was the ugliest color in the world. And she would fight you to the death if it had to do with her children. She loved them more than anything in the world.” To Brook, Shannon was a pit bull—one of the very best breeding who also loved race cars and drove “like a mad woman.”
In her reign as “the scrapbooking queen,” Shannon not only carefully documented her own kids’ lives, but she also put together the Gibbons’ family memories (Brook, admittedly, is not a big picture taker or book maker). “(Shannon) did all (my kids’) baby books and loved every minute of it,” Brook says. “My kids only have pictures because she took them and put them together.” That carried over into her unofficial title as the “Crafty Mom” on her fourth-grade teaching team at Edgewood too. Shannon loved to lead kids in projects that would be become gifts for their parents.
Shannon the Teacher
In the classroom, Shannon was never afraid to do complicated math or a science experiment if it meant the kids would learn more from it. Each of her students still remembers things she said and how she instilled a love of reading in them with the stories of Gregor in The Underland Chronicles and books by Bleu Balliett.
“No matter where a child was academically when they came to her, she was able to help them grow tremendously and be challenged,” says Christen Sloderbeck, who taught fourth-grade with Shannon. “A lot of teachers might be good with one type of kid, but she could help all of them. That’s pretty incredible as a teacher.”
Teaching wasn’t just about academics for her either. “She was really good at seeing a kid as a whole person, helping with their academic needs but also understanding their emotional needs and their physical needs,” Christen says. Brook, now an assistant principal herself, affirmed that about Shannon too: “You can talk to any of her kids she taught. If they were struggling or needed something, she was there, whether it was school-related or family-related. She made it happen. She was an advocate for them.”
Shannon’s competitive nature won extra victories the year Genny Pittman, a 2014 Homewood High graduate, had her for fourth grade. That year their class won the spelling bee, softball tournament, geography bee—anything they could win.
But their relationship didn’t stop there. Years later Shannon would text Genny a Bible verse every morning, and when Genny went on to swim at Auburn, Shannon knew the results of every one of her meets and sent her words of encouragement before and afterward. “She was a mentor for me all along,” Genny says. “She always told me she was my number one fan and texted that to me a lot.” Shannon wouldn’t be there to text Genny before her wedding day last December (although she did get to meet her now-husband), but Bryan along with his and Shannon’s children Wes and Isabel were there to celebrate and still keep in touch.
No doubt Genny wasn’t the only one of Shannon’s students to take more than a love of reading from their fourth-grade year with Shannon. “What they learned from her, not only education but about life and service and life and family, they have now taken to their families,” Brook says. “A lot of them are now married. It’s because of what she did that’s what made them who they are.”
After several years teaching fourth grade, Shannon stepped into a new role at Edgewood as the L.E.A.D. teacher, a once-a-week specials class that focuses on math and science. “That required a person who was resourceful and creative, who could really get to the heart of children and cause them to wonder and want to dig deeper and find out more about the whys and hows of science and its relation to math,” recalls Tricia Simpson, the Edgewood principal at the time. “She was the perfect fit for that particular position. She believed in hands-on approaches long before the education community knew the importance of all of that. That was just her style of teaching.”
Shannon was much beloved in that role too. “It’s rare a fifth grader is super excited to do things at school, but they loved to go to her class,” fifth-grade teacher Lindsey Martin recalls. “You can tell when a teacher is passionate about her work. She wanted them to have fun and enjoy the day.”
Shannon’s hands-on approach reached new levels after Tricia dreamed up the idea for a pond at the school to serve as an outdoor classroom. Shannon, naturally, was all in her role as L.E.A.D. teacher. “I remember Shannon putting on long, tall boots and getting in the pond because it would have to be cleaned once a week,” Tricia recalls. “She’d wade through all this muck so they kids could get good visuals. It was a labor of love for her. I had such an appreciation for her tenacity, and her willingness to do it spoke volumes of who she was. Shannon gave us her best, and she did that in everything that she did.”
The Diagnosis and Beyond
Outside of Edgewood, Shannon was seemingly always there for the John Carroll High School cross country and track teams that Bryan coached. When one athlete’s mom Robin Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer, Robin suspects that Shannon was the driving force behind the team’s shirts that year being pink instead of John Carroll grey or green. In fact, when Robin received her diagnosis, Shannon was one of the first people she called. What Shannon couldn’t have known is that not too many years later, she’d be calling Robin, then in remission, with news that the pain she thought was residual from running was a softball-size tumor on her pelvis. She too had cancer. Roles reversed, and Robin cared for Shannon.
“In the end she so far outdid me in the will to survive and battle,” Robin says. “Shannon 100 percent role modeled for (her kids) how you live and how you die. You don’t freak out, you maintain your faith in God, you do everything for your family until the end because in the end that’s all that matters.”
Shannon’s life was unceasingly about others. That never changed. “She accepted it with open arms and kept moving forward,” Genny says. “She wasn’t afraid. She took the journey that was placed in her hands and let everyone else learn and grow from it.”
Ashley McCullars, a fellow Edgewood teacher and friend, remembers one night after Shannon had to leave her job due to cancer treatments when Isabel’s homecoming dress needed to be hemmed. She came over to Ashley’s house to work on it. “She made a huge point to get it the perfect length and fit her petite frame,” Ashley recalls. “I just remember thinking she has a lot on her plate to worry about but the thing that was most important to her was making sure Isabel’s dress fit.”
And she was never without gratitude, even on her sickest days. “Shannon was really grateful for the time she had,” Christen says. “She fought hard and did everything she could, but she was so grateful to do what she loved as a teacher and having two amazing kids and a loving husband. I heard her say that a lot. She said of course she wanted more time, but she had everything she wanted.” Shannon also never asked, “Why?” “She always said the cancer would bring us closer to God,” Christen says. “She chose to see it through the eyes of faith.”
Years of building relationships in Homewood came into play at this time too. “Because Shannon was so loved and respected it was not difficult for teachers to gather on their own time to pray for her,” Tricia says. “It was not difficult for parents to want to support her and ask what they can do. It all flowed because of everyone’s love for Shannon. Everyone knew how much she loved her husband and her children, and we had teachers who would take her kids home and pick them up from events. Parents would volunteer to do the same thing.”
Always the planner, Shannon outlined her entire memorial service ahead of time. But most her planning for the future focused on her kids. She had a long talk with Tricia, and with Shannon determinism, told her exactly what she wanted her to do. “Everything she wanted was centered around the protection of her husband and her kids, and she knew she could trust me to do exactly that,” Tricia recalls.
Likewise, Shannon talked to her closest friends about how to take care of her kids and Bryan after she was gone. In her absence, she wanted to make sure they would be happy and healthy and doing what they love to do. She wanted to make sure they continued to go to Disney World and to the beach. She wanted to make sure that Isabel could handle driving and that she always had a birthday party, the things she had always done that sometimes dads forget about. She wanted to make sure Isabel had a mother’s presence on her wedding day and that her high school friends remained close knit. She wanted Wes to remember that when it rained that she was there. “She did not want them to mourn and be sad she was gone,” Brook says. “She wanted them to know she was always with them and that they were going to be okay.”
Today, more than two years after she passed away, Shannon’s close friends Wynn Jones, Kathy Wood and Brook all get together once a month to ask the same question: “If Shannon were here, what would she be doing?”
A Legacy That Lives On
Williams Gibbons’ earliest memories of Shannon were of sneaking up to her and Bryan’s apartment as a 2-year-old to eat salt and vinegar chips, drink Coke and watch TV, when his parents lived a few floors beneath in Samford faculty housing. Today at age 21 he is playing Shannon’s favorite sport, baseball, at her alma mater, Berry College in Georgia. “He was so proud that that was where she went and that she loved baseball,” William’s mom Brook says. “She was his best friend.”
It’s those who were close to Shannon who remember her most vividly, but her legacy lives on with even those who didn’t know her. A Homewood Swim Team award for service and leadership is now named after Shannon. After all, she spent several years in leadership roles for the team and served as the president of the Jefferson Shelby Swim Council. “But her ultimate goal was to get more kids involved and to give them an activity to do that was fun and with their friends,” Brook says.
At Edgewood, a fourth-grade civics award is now given in Shannon’s memory. Former state Rep. Paul DeMarco, who started the award, recalls that Shannon was always the first elementary school teacher to call to setup a time for him to speak when her class visited Montgomery for a field trip. “It was telling how important civics education was to her,” Paul says. “She was so enthusiastic about her students’ understanding of the governmental process and democracy and how our government works in the state of Alabama. It shows what kind of teacher she was.”
In May Edgewood fifth graders planned a Cancer Awareness Party “CAP” in memory of Shannon and in honor of a fellow student undergoing cancer treatments. Students wore caps out of solidarity with their classmate, who had lost his hair, and, as any event that honored Shannon should, competed in an obstacle course and other events.
The idea for the party, not surprisingly, started with Wes. “It was just so cool that he chose to research cancer and he wanted people to be aware because it took his mom,” his teacher Lindsey Martin says. “I think that was a huge mature step for him to choose to do that on his own.”
Ask anyone who knew Shannon, and they’ll affirm that her legacy first and foremost lives on in her family. They bear her same determination, her same strong spirit. They embody the strength that Shannon so wanted them to have. Teachers see Shannon in Isabel, and they see Shannon in Wes. Both kids are competitive and good at math—and quick to tell you who they get it from, smiling as they speak of their mom. And they look just like her too.
“When (Wes is) smart in math it reminds me of (Shannon), being competitive,” Lindsey says. “He was captain of our class softball team, and she would have loved that. He’s determined and competitive and wants to win. That’s Shannon Burgess all over.”
Why We Love Mrs. Burgess
Lindsey Martin asked her 2017-2018 fifth-grade class at Edgewood, including Shannon’s son Wes, about their memories of Mrs. Burgess as their L.E.A.D. teacher, and they wouldn’t stop talking. Here’s what they had to say:
“She hated the color purple and would never let us sit on the purple dots on the rug.”
“Well yeah that’s because she had a purple car when she was in high school and it broke down on the interstate. The car was named Barney. She always named her cars.”
“She taught us how to do math different ways. It was awesome.”
“When she was in a wheelchair, she still came to the Turkey Trot to cheer everyone on.”
“She did the fun projects. We would blow up baking soda in balloons, and she would explain it in a good way, not a scientific way.”
“She used to smile all the time. I never saw her frown.”
“One time we did a penguin test and put butter on one of our hands to test in an ice bucket. She won. She would always beat me in everything. I could never win against that lady.”
“I feel so bad for the people who never had her as a teacher.”
“We brought in bottles to make lava lamps. It was so cool.”
“Every month she made a calendar and each day had a different problem. If you completed the calendar you got a homework pass and a polymer animal.”
“She always let us watch the Berry Eagle Cam!”
“She was genius.”
“She was the best specials teacher ever.”
“I don’t remember her ever raising her voice. She was just always laughing.”