You’d never guess it but Stacy Butz, the Reading Specialist and mother of two who is part of The Learning Lab team at Old Bonhomme Elementary School, once gave serious consideration to becoming an OB-GYN. She also joined a clown ministry during her senior year at Ursuline AND started a brand new one the very next year as a freshman at Quincy College.
Reading Between the Butterflies
By Craig Williams
She went by the clown name (and persona) of ‘Sunshine.’ On top of all that, she authored a children’s book at the age of 46. To say she’s got a lot of plates spinning or that she has assembled a purpose-filled life—while true—doesn’t quite capture it. To understand Stacy, you’ve got to look closer at those spinning plates, what spun them up in the first place, and consider the common thread that contributes so plainly to who she is today. Spoiler alert: It’s all about kids… and family, support, inspiration, community… and faith.
Never, ever stigmatize a child who struggles with learning.
The oldest of six children, Stacy and her family landed in St. Louis from Chicago by way of a short stint in Michigan. She was 9-years-old and her father had just taken on the presidency of Forklifts of St. Louis, a role he would make his life’s work. But, despite it all, he and Stacy’s mother were very engaged parents. With a mix of young school-aged children, and several who’d not yet started school, these were people who knew a thing or two about deftly spinning plates.
Landing in third grade at Shenandoah elementary in the Parkway District but moving to Ascension Catholic the following year, only to repeat third grade, Stacy already felt a bit stigmatized, but trusted both her parents and the decision. The reading test at Shenandoah that led to the decision was a landmark moment for her. She saw her friends completing the test and heading off to lunch, while she remained behind. Sensitive and self-aware, Stacy had the good fortune of a teacher in her first year at Ascension—Mrs. Wilhelm—who saw her and inspired her in a way that helped shape a more confident child than the one who felt stigmatized and left behind on the reading test a year earlier. To this day, that moment and Mrs. Wilhelm’s memorable kindness informs an important piece of Stacy’s teaching style. More on that later, but it really is quite a thing how a moment or two between a teacher and a student can play such a pivotal role in forecasting a trajectory. In scientific communities, this idea is sometimes referred to as the ‘butterfly effect,’ the notion that the world is deeply interconnected, such that one small occurrence—the flap of a butterfly’s wings, for instance—can influence a much larger complex system… or a life. For sensitive, self-aware Stacy, that butterfly was Mrs. Wilhelm.
But there would be other butterflies. A fifth grade teacher, who inspired Stacy with a magical reading of a special childhood book, the softball coach who told her to hit a home run against a rival… right before she did, those who encouraged her to take up tennis, or student council, or other leadership roles when she, herself, wasn’t sure she had what it would take. In her own words, I see humility and that trademarked self-awareness, “I feel blessed that people have seen [things] in me that I often didn’t see myself. It really helped build my confidence.” In the old adage, good luck, it is said, is when preparation meets opportunity, but confidence is often a precursor to both, and, though tempered with occasional reluctance, it became a game changer for Stacy. In my conversation with her, several important themes began to emerge that I could see were at play in her life: Family, a genuine love for young people, and compassion for those with less. But if it hadn’t yet become clear to me, it had become clear to her, years earlier, how she would combine those themes.
Stacy’s 9-year-old self may have wanted to be, a ‘Mrs. Wilhelm,’ a teacher, but she also wanted to be a baby sitter and an OB-GYN. It was really her own mother who gave her the nudge she needed to pursue education as a career. And it has turned out to be a nudge that, without exaggeration, has changed the world. We often speak in amped-up superlatives, with little thought given to their lack of fit. Words like ‘excellent,’ ‘awesome,’ or ‘outstanding,’ fill-in for more apt adjective shaping of mundanity. But what virtually every educator does, and what Stacy certainly does, is most deserving of ‘amped-up shaping.’
In college, Stacy focused on ELA—English Language Arts— and has spent most of her career as a reading specialist, and when she helps a child learn to read—a child who very well might not have otherwise acquired that bedrock skill for another 2-3 years—she is absolutely changing the world. And if you’ve been paying attention to the importance of butterflies in our story, you know it isn’t just that child’s world.
The brutal murder of her sister-in-law, Teresa Butz, in 2009 led to a great deal of soul searching and introspection for Stacy and her husband, Tim. In the practical sense, it led to a writer’s workshop in Hermann, Missouri. And in true butterfly fashion, that led to a concept for a book based on the idea that love always wins. Despite the disappointments, the difficulties, even the tragedies, love, they determined, was the best way forward. And for Stacy, that meant not only finding forgiveness for the man who did this awful thing to Teresa, and recognizing the void in his life that likely contributed to his commission of this act, but in helping to fill that void in others through education and, specifically, through reading. Stacy’s intuition, yes, but research too, reveals the critical importance of early childhood education and the value in elementary literacy. Because so much crime is tied to poverty, and because so much poverty is tied to interruptions, or outright obstacles, to education, Stacy sees much of what she does as preventative. Hard to measure, globally, through the lens of a single reading specialist at a small elementary school in Olivette, Missouri, sure, but philosophically very much aligned with a world-changing mindset of ‘love always wins.’ Certainly no less so than an infusion of confidence from a Mrs. Wilhelm smile.
Recalling the moment of that third grade reading test at Shenandoah Elementary School, and the flourish of her friends finishing quickly and running off to the lunch tables, Stacy compartmentalized something insightful and carried it with her, full-term, to its useful destination several decades away. “Never, ever stigmatize a child who struggles with learning.” She makes it her mission to honor that insight gathered-up from its painful crucible. Though she is a ‘Specials’ teacher, she opens her services up to all students, as she reminds me of the access our children gain to life’s many doors through reading, in the knowledge, inspiration, and beauty conveyed by the written word.
My conversation with Stacy for this story lasted only an hour and twenty five minutes, but by the time we finished, I felt like I’d known her for years. In some ways, we couldn’t be more different. But in the ways that matter, we couldn’t be more alike. When I went to the Butz home to photograph Stacy and Tim, I found warmth and kindness, but also an intense appreciation for family and for community. But most of all, I felt what I believe her students must feel, a sense that I mattered; that they, her students, matter. Whatever Mrs. Wilhelm shared with this early challenged reader in third grade, Stacy has magnified many times over in her work and in her life. Just one butterfly to another, changing the world.
As I was leaving Tim and Stacy’s home that night in early December, she handed me a copy of the children’s book she authored, “A Mother’s Gift,” and when I got home, I opened it to her inscription on the inside front cover: ‘Love always wins.” Indeed, it does, Sunshine. Indeed, it does.