The students at John M. Patterson Elementary know to expect something otherworldly when they step into teacher Susan Love’s classroom in Southwest Philly.
For the last 14 years, Love has transformed ordinary classrooms into extraordinary lands of adventure. For years, she created an “island of learning,” installing paper palm trees, rainbow streamers, thatched huts, and flowers -- real and artificial -- in every corner of the room. More recently, she’s chosen a castle theme, telling her students that they are royalty and have a say in how the realm is run.
Her efforts are inspired by her personal backstory of survival and transcendence. She believes that her students can do anything they set their minds to and that it’s her job to help them realize that.
“Coming into this new year, I’m positive,” the Northeast Philadelphia resident said. “I will take my children where they need to go academically and I will protect them emotionally, because children deserve and need that.”
Love, 50, was 4 years old when a fire destroyed the Philadelphia home she shared with her mother and four siblings. She has memories of resting her head on the chest of the fireman who carried her through the smoke and flames that night and hearing him say “Just breathe” when they reached fresh air. She remembers riding in an ambulance and hearing someone say, “She’ll make it.”
With her house destroyed and her mother unable to deal with the aftermath, Love and her siblings were placed with different foster families. Love felt disconnected from the family she lived with for the next 12 years. But she bonded with Donna Waitz Cohn, the social worker from Lutheran Children and Family Service who visited her monthly and with whom she stays in touch. She was “my first beacon,” said Love.
“She’d spend time with me, helped me with my homework. I never felt like a foster kid when I was with her,” Love recalled. “I didn’t feel like anything was wrong when she came to see me – but everything was wrong when she left.”
Cohn, now retired, describes Love as “an amazing kid and an even more amazing adult.”
“She believes in youth, especially youth that have had a very hard time. She wants children to believe they have a voice, they’re valuable and if they work hard, they can accomplish amazing things.” I’ve heard her say that, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not good enough.’ “
After high school, Love enrolled at Cedar Crest, a private women’s liberal-arts college in Allentown, where she met professor Carol Pulham, her second “beacon.” When life felt too hard to handle, Love sought Pulham’s counsel.
“She’d say, “I’m sorry, Susan, but you can do this – and you will,’ ” Love said. “She made me see that I was stronger for [my past].”
After earning a master’s degree in education at Arcadia University in Glenside, Love taught in the Philadelphia school system. At Julia de Borgos Elementary School, where she was a long-term substitute overseeing a special-education class, she impressed then-principal Al Soler.
“I didn’t know her until she came to the school, so of course I was worried. But there was no need,” said Soler, now retired. “She was a dynamic teacher. The kids adored her. She knew when to be firm, when to be kind, when to reward students. She did a beautiful job.”
After a while, though, Love felt burnt out – and the pain of her past was catching up with her. That’s when she met her third “beacon,” internal-medicine doctor Maya Tsysina.
“I was in a dark place. I remember wanting to escape my life,” said Love, who took a few weeks off from school to seek help. “I saw [Tsysina] for 10 days straight and went from total devastation to ‘I’m not giving up. There’s a way.’ She made me want to find it.”
Before her leave, Love had noticed that some of her students struggled with family problems or fears related to violence or poverty. While vacationing in the Caribbean, she shared her concerns with a stranger, who noted that while Love could get away from those challenging surroundings, her students could not. Love’s classroom, the stranger suggested, was their island, their place of escape.
With that insight, Love returned to school renewed. She transformed her classroom into a gorgeous “island of learning” where children would always feel welcomed and inspired. She also wrote her own story, Ms. Love’s Mystical Island Adventure, in which four city kids visiting a tropical island work together and solve puzzles to protect the island’s rare orchids from a potentially devastating hurricane. (The book’s main characters are based on former students.) Love published it as an e-book in 2014 and in print form earlier this year.
When she’s not teaching, Love advocates for children in foster care. She has interviewed dozens of people who, like her, find their lives indelibly marked by their time in the system.
“Some I meet in person, some I have phone conversations with. Some say: ‘I’m too hurt. I’m going to cry. Let me email you my story,’ ” said Love, who cries when she reads their words. “There have been children who were loved by their foster parents and are now successful -- but those are about 2 percent of the cases I’ve heard.”
These conversations have helped her draft a list of proposed changes to the foster-care system that she believes will improve the lives of hundreds of children. Her dream: Tto share her ideas with government leaders in Harrisburg.
“Can I end abuse in foster homes? No, but I can sure see it decrease,” she said.
Love is always talking about others – her three beacons, students past and present, foster-system survivors. When asked if perhaps the reason she works so hard and cares so much is because she wants to be a beacon to students and foster children, she seemed surprised. She paused before replying.
“Yes,” Love said slowly, “I do want to be a beacon. And I don’t need a child to ever come back and tell me that I’ve been a beacon for them. I just want to do the best I can.”
She also hesitated when asked if “Love” is the last name she was born with. She’ll only say that it is her legal name, and that it comes with high expectations.
“When children learn I’m Ms. Love,” she said, “they fully expect me to live up to that.”