Carol Charismas credits Nelson Mandela for inspiring her, at age 72, to go back into teaching full time.
When the South African leader died in December 2013, at the age of 95, Charismas learned that he turned 72 the year he was let out of prison. That was 1990.
Mandela, born in 1918, joined the African National Congress in 1944, a year after Charismas was born. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1964 with other ANC leaders for political offenses, including sabotage. Released in 1990, he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with South African President F.W. de Klerk for efforts to peacefully dismantle apartheid in that nation. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president.
“It encouraged me to look at the remainder of my life as more significant than the years that had passed,” said Charismas, who has invited me into her seventh-grade English classes at Paseo Academy as she pushes with other Kansas City Public Schools teachers to boost students’ academic performance so the district can earn full accreditation. “It gave me more confidence to address the age problem.”
Charismas’ earlier years included getting her bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and beginning her teaching career in the Raytown School District in 1966. For three years she taught ninth-grade English, was the student newspaper sponsor and intramural basketball coach at Raytown Junior High. From 1969 to 1971 she taught 10th-grade English, senior composition and research, poetry and was the yearbook sponsor at Raytown South High School. She also was a married mother of then-15-month-old Rachel Ann and was pregnant with her second child, Jason. That’s where Charismas started to make headlines. The Raytown district fired her because she was pregnant.
Irving J. Achtenberg, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, represented her and won a victory for Charismas and all teachers. But Charismas moved on, teaching 10th- and 11th-grade English in 1972-73 and creative writing in the old Paseo High School. Headlines entered her life again with a shooting in her classroom. “It was horrifying,” she said. It was from an earlier argument over a pickup basketball game. Miraculously, no one was injured.
Charismas taught at Southwest High School from 1974 to 1976 and took two years off to sell real estate. She went back to teach 11th-grade English, poetry and coach volleyball at Wyandotte High but was fired for flunking too many students.
“The students earned too many Fs,” she said, never believing in social promotion. An administrator “wanted me to change my grades, and I wouldn’t do it.”
She left teaching to sell real estate again, doing that for 21 years, making more than she did as an educator. Charismas’ tenacity showed again when as a real estate agent she got into a court fight over the sale of the Stover Mansion in Mission Hills in 1987. She won.
She got back into teaching in her early 60s at Lincoln College Prep, where from 2006 to 2010 she taught ninth-grade English literature and composition and 11th-grade theory of knowledge. Mandela brought her back to teaching at Paseo Academy.
“All of us need some kind of inspiration,” said Charismas, who has invested $6,500 to $7,500 of her money in new furniture, artwork and plants and about $1,000 to have the classroom painted, creating a teaching and learning oasis for her and her students. She has an incredible attitude about where she is and what she’s determined to accomplish with her kids.
When school officials asked why she wanted to return to teaching full time Charismas said: “Hillary Clinton is almost my age, and she wants to be president. I hope to stay as long as I feel I’m effective.
“I don’t work for money. If I worked for money, I’d still be selling real estate.”
Her students and Kansas City Public Schools are fortunate to have a teacher who’s in the classroom for all the right reasons.