NORTH CENTER — Debbie McCray made history when she began teaching at Bell Elementary School in the 1970s.
McCray, who was African American, was part of a Chicago Public Schools initiative to desegregate teaching staff throughout the district. Before heading to the mostly white school at 3730 N. Oakley Ave., she had taught kindergarten at an all-black school.
“Ms. McCray,” as she’s remembered, was beloved by the students she taught at Bell — including three girls who were so inspired by her, they decided to become teachers, too.
“I grew up in the neighborhood and going to Bell was like home. I loved every moment of it and my teachers,” said Nicole Tsamoulos, a second grade teacher at Bell who was also an aide at the school’s program for students who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Tsamoulos graduated from the grade school in 1991 and part of that feeling of home comes from having “Ms. McCray” as one of her teachers, she said.
“She was a woman who was no-nonsense strict. But in the same breath that she could discipline you she could also comfort you — swoop you up in a hug and make you feel like you were the most special thing on the planet,” Tsamoulos said.
McCray taught at the school for 30 years before dying in 2002 from lung cancer.
“One of my favorite memories of Ms. McCray is she used to let you be her pen pal and you’d write her a note and she’d write you back,” said Colleen Ward, another student-turned-teacher at Bell. She graduated from Bell in 2001 and currently works with students who are deaf and hard of hearing in kindergarten and first grade.
Jessica Anetsberger graduated in 2007 and also returned to the school to work with students who are deaf and hard of hearing in third and fourth grade. By the time Anetsberger was in school, McCray had been in and out for health reasons, but the way the community came together following her death moved her.
“I just remember hearing that song ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ during it so now whenever I hear that song I think of her,” Anetsberger said.
The sense of community McCray helped foster at Bell is why all three former students were inspired to return to the school as teachers.
“A lot of people either don’t like their job or don’t like each other, which is sad. But I think at Bell we are really lucky to have such a strong sense of community,” Ward said. “I think it’s because we all truly care about the kids and have a really tight-knit group.”
Bell Elementary is a regional gifted center for kindergarten through eighth grade and has had some form of specialized programing for students who are deaf and hard of hearing since it first opened in 1917.
“My first friend in kindergarten, Penelope, was actually deaf and I didn’t know how to communicate with her so I just stood next to her on the playground at first,” Anetsberger said. “But playing together I just started picking up sign language.”
Bell’s history of serving students with hearing difficulties is also why Tsamoulos, Ward and Anetsberger all say they developed an interest in sign language and decided to return to teach at Bell.
The North Center school is also only one of two schools left in all of CPS that uses both American Sign Language as well as assistive listening devices, and kids as young as 3 years old can attend.
“Some of our kids ride the bus for hours but they come here to learn sign language,” Ward said.
When McCray was still with the school, she became friends with Tsamoulos’ family, who owned a ceramics business in the area. As a gift they crafted a bright red apple with her name on it.
When she died, the apple went to one of McCray’s colleagues. In 2003, a year after McCray passed away, Tsamoulos began teaching at the school. When the teacher who was holding onto the apple retired he reached out to Tsamoulos because he knew about the connection between her family and McCray.
“When he retired he brought me her apple and now I have it on my desk,” she said.
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.