Eloquent. Funny. A free spirit. The epitome of a lady. A person who looked deeply into others and saw their genuine goodness.
This is the way Doris Sanders will be remembered.
Many people, most perhaps, dream of making a difference, of changing the world, of leaving a legacy. Often that ideal is imagined in the context of something grandiose, which brings fame and glory. Not so often, however, is it thought of in terms of a decades-long career as a small-town, public school teacher. But such is the extraordinary impact Doris Sanders had on the lives of her English and theater arts students at Hawkins High School, as evidenced by the hundreds of small, love letters she received on Facebook during her final days.
"Oh, Mrs. Sanders," wrote Wendy Wynn, a 2004 Hawkins graduate who is now an accountant, living in Fort Worth, "you were such an influential person to me in my teenage years ... I saw how you showed faith, love and understanding for kids who really didn't get motivation and passion from anybody else ... Take a look at all of these posts from friends, students, coworkers - you have positively impacted so many people's lives, young and old. I would say that this right here is the true meaning of life, and you definitely nailed it."
After a three and a half year battle with breast cancer, Doris entered Hospice care in Tyler last weekend. She passed away Wednesday.
The Hospice of East Texas staff made her as comfortable as possible; and she was peaceful, surrounded by her family, waking briefly to smile at visitors, then drifting back to sleep again. And while she rested, the well-wishes, prayers, stories, and mostly thank-yous poured in on social media.
"For a kid who was always told to be quiet, you gave me a voice and a stage. My entire path in life changed from there on. There aren't words enough to express what your intervention in my life meant. Thank you," said Luke Henderson, a Denver writer from the Hawkins class of 1997.
Dr. Fred Fuentes, one of Doris' earliest students, a 1991 graduate of Banquete High School now living and working in Washington, D.C., wrote:
"Mrs. Sanders has meant so much to me and so many of my friends for decades. She stood out, among a sea of great teachers, as someone who was non-judgmental and accepting of all of us weird Drama Club kids ... As my high school teacher, more than 20 years ago, she motivated me to ignore the reputation that I had created for myself and, instead, focus on the positive, on my future. I'm thankful to her for being kind, accepting and just a wonderful person. Please do not think that one person cannot have a major impact on your life ... Every time I meet with my old high school friends, we ALWAYS talk about the impact she had on our lives during a time that was so hard for us, our adolescence. A time when we made some of the dumbest mistakes of our lives, where most could have, and in fact, did, judge us. Not her. She was always a spark of positive vibes ... I am so thankful for teachers and mentors who take time to empower others."
Doris Sanders always wanted to be a teacher. As an Air Force child who moved around a lot, she loved "playing school" with her friends. During high school, she got hooked on theatre and considered her drama teacher to be a mentor and a big influence in her life. Doris' own career as an English and theater arts teacher and One Act Play director spanned 29 years, including 20 at Hawkins High School, and was cut short only when her long battle with breast cancer forced her early retirement last fall.
"From the initial diagnosis in September 2010," said her husband of 32 years, Brian Sanders, "we were determined to fight this disease no matter what. She had a mastectomy, radiation and a round of chemo along with hormone treatments. We have learned to lean on our family and our church family. But our main source of strength has come from our faith in Jesus Christ and the Hope that we received from Him … We also used a lot of humor to get us through this. Anyone that knows our family will tell you we love to laugh."
Doris and Brian have a son, Danny, a youth minister in Commerce, and a daughter, Jessica, an art major at TJC. Additionally, Brian said, "a few years ago we became legal guardians of one of Doris' students, Jordan Brazil, and she came to live with us for the remainder of her high school career. We consider her one of our children."
Jordan, who now attends college in Southern California, recalled when she first met Doris.
"Going into my freshman year in high school, I was terrified of her. Mostly just because she was a scary high school teacher, but I got over that quickly. She cast me as one of the lead roles in all three of the plays we did that year and we got closer and closer over the next couple years. Throughout high school she was always there for me — when I was crying, intensely hyper and everything in between. My junior year, things in my personal life got out of hand, and she opened up her house to me. She and her husband gave me a home to live in. She gave me more than a great high school experience, she gave me a family."
This sense of being accepted and valued is something echoed by dozens of Doris' former students and, according to her husband, it was something she genuinely felt. "I believe Doris' passion for teaching came from her love of her students. She tried to make each one of her students feel special and loved. She tried to make a connection with each one. Some of her strongest connections were with students that others might think of as trouble."
And so this week, as she neared the end of her Earthly journey, many of those former students came forward to express their appreciation for Doris Sanders.
"She came into my life at a time when I was just about to emotionally shut out the world," wrote Trent Westbrook. "She got me to open up in a way that has affected the rest of my life, and I would not be the successful, creative person that I am today without her. I'm so happy that I was able to speak to her a couple of years ago and let her know that the work I am doing today was a direct result of her working with me as a young adult. If she had not sparked that creative outlet and taught me that it's ok to be who I am today, I'm not sure where I would be right now or if I would even still be here ... I love you, Mrs. Sanders, so very much."
Beth Hooten said, "When I first met her, I was terrified of being in front of anyone. I hid from people in general. When she cast me in her variety show my first year in Hawkins, my world changed. I went on to be in several of her productions and eventually fast forward to now when I have recently been the president of a Toastmasters group to encourage others to a life of public speaking. It would have never been possible to get to this point in my career as a scientist without her teaching me to write eloquently, thoughtfully and with purpose. She guided my path in a way few others could have. She was a mentor and friend, and her candle burns brightly in all she touches and will not easily be extinguished."
By all measurable standards, Doris Sanders led a highly successful drama program at Hawkins High School for 20 years. But in the end, what mattered was not the top-notch productions, the packed houses, or the awards that were won. What mattered to her students was being truly seen and appreciated by another human being.
"You found a way to reach out to almost every one of your students and see - AND SAY - what was unique and special in them," said Amanda Weiss from the class of 1995, who is now the school counselor at HHS. "You have a rare gift that so few have: a gift of being truly WITH the people who surround you and looking at them and in their hearts, searching for that special light that you knew was in each of us. I think when you looked, what you found was a reflection of the light coming from within you - that light that you reflected from our wonderful Creator. Being around you somehow kindled a spark in us. What a gift. What a blessing. What a legacy."
While Doris might not have fully grasped the positive influence she had on so many young people over the years, in her own simple, consistent way, her own warm, funny and spirited way, she made a difference. She changed lives. She embraced the opportunity which is available to each and every human being, the opportunity to spread love and joy in the time allowed on this earth.
Dax Dobbs, a 1999 graduate who lives in Austin and works as Promotions Manager for ABC, put it simply. "Mrs. Sanders, you gave the best there is to give: education, stimulation, art, love, empathy and kindness. You did your part in the world, and it's a little bigger and a lot better for that reason."
While Doris is no longer able to see her Facebook page flooded with messages from her students, friends and colleagues, their words are worth sharing publicly, as a testimony to a life well-lived and as an inspiration for each of us to care enough to make a difference.
Beth Erickson-Lytle is a 1989 graduate of Hawkins High School, a former English and theater teacher who teaches yoga full-time and lives in Flint with her husband and their combined three sons and two dogs.
"She wanted you to learn and enjoy yourself when in her classroom. I remember her encouraging us, just in her way, to become more artistic, creative, and more free to express ourselves. Being a teenager, that was hard; but with Doris, you felt supported and encouraged to live a little ... She encouraged and really brought out the more free spirited side of us, and was a free spirit herself ... She laughed readily at herself and at things that happened. She had a soft voice. I never remember her raising it, except to laugh." - Lanessa Bass, pediatrician, Little Rock, HHS class of 1994
"I love you so much. You were my second mother. I enjoyed having all the time I had in high school with you. You are such a Godly woman, and I pray that I am as strong and amazing as you are. You helped me so much in high school. And to this day, the life lessons you taught me, I use them. I am so thankful to have you in my life." - Ashley Ricks, full-time student at Lamar University in Beaumont, HHS class of 2012
"You were such a core in molding me into who I am today. You have touched so many people's lives, and you are loved by many. I learned a lot with you as a teacher, director, sometimes even like a mother to me. You may not know it, but you taught me how to open up and be myself through theatre. You were always so encouraging and a pleasure to be around ... You are an amazing, beautiful woman and I am so blessed to say I know you." - Kassadie Thompson Ragsdale, full-time mom, Hawkins, HHS class of 2010
"It's hard to even begin. She was exactly what so many of us needed and wanted. She exemplified such love and grace. I knew there was something about her. But at the time, being a selfish teenager, I didn't know what it was. I just thought she was the best teacher ever. She truly loved us. She helped us. She believed in us. She encouraged us. She was available for us. Now as an adult and mom. I realize exactly what it was. She loves Jesus. No wonder she was able to love us so purely." - Vicki Miller, Sulphur Springs
"I had Mrs. Sanders for English. She was one of my favorite teachers. She was always so nice and I felt that I could tell her anything. Her classroom was always like a breath of fresh air in a crazy high school day." - Christy Brooks, healthcare professional, Quitman, HHS class of 1996
"She is such an incredible, sweet lady and an amazing teacher. Her influence and impact on the students' lives at Hawkins is immeasurable. Personally, I appreciate her always being there for my children. She has always been so encouraging and has had an amazing ability to bring out the best in them. Mrs. Sanders, your life has touched countless people. Please know that you are loved and you will never be forgotten!" - Audra Kay Edwards, sixth-grade science teacher in Hawkins
"Mrs. Sanders is a wonderful person. ... She was always with a big smile and full of laughter. Always making sure we saw the confidence in ourselves that she, somehow, always knew we had hidden within us. ...She definitely helped me get out of my shell and helped me build up my self confidence." — Elizabeth Vera, Robstown, TX
"Mrs. Sanders has been my second mother, my role model and my friend for many years. I was in all of her high school plays and musicals. She extinguished my stage fright and taught me how to be a lady when she had me play the female lead in The Importance of Being Ernest. She also saved me from an abusive relationship. When I told her what was happening, she told me, ‘You're settling with a insecure little boy that you think you deserve. And he doesn't deserve you. You deserve much better.' I ended that abuse soon after and it was the best decision of my life. I am now happily engaged to the man of my dreams. If it wasn't for her, I don't know where I would be." - Megan Hartgraves, a healthcare professional, Tyler, HHS class of 2011
"...During my senior year, after I got my acceptance letter from college, the first person I ran and told was Mrs. Sanders. She told me, ‘Of course you would get accepted; you're a bright young lady!' She was so nice and one of my favorite teachers. Going to miss her so much!" - Cassidy Jennings, college student and substitute teacher, Hawkins, class of 2013
"May I just say, I love you, Doris Sanders! You are an amazing person and how awesome for you to have had such a positive influence in my life as a teacher and, years later, in my daughter's life too. Your students adore you, and you have made all the difference in so many lives. God Bless you!" - Summer Baxter, insurance agent in Tyler, HHS class of 1997
"I feel blessed to have crossed paths with you, Mrs. Sanders. You are someone I have always admired, and someone I love for seeing the light in me when others didn't. You so positively impacted many people's lives throughout your career and life. You will always be in my heart!" - Marianna Page, college student, HHS class of 2008
"Mrs. Sanders has touched so many of us, and I don't think she truly realizes how much she is loved by us all. We will forever be great-full and forever inspired by her. She helped us become the young adults we are today. I just hope we have made her proud. I am speaking on behalf of all former Hawks that she has taught: Thank you Mrs. Sanders and we love you!!!" - Sheree Clendening-Cook, teacher, Winona, HHS class of 1997
"No teacher I had in high school ever pushed me like she did. Mrs. Sanders always went above and beyond to make sure I succeeded... and it's not one day that would go by I will not think about you." - Chrisie Burt, medical, Dallas, HHS class of 2004
"On September 11, 2001, I was in Doris Sanders' class, and we watched on television as the second plane struck. Mrs. Sanders asked us to turn off the television for a moment and gather around. In a very calm tone she began to describe to us, the greatness of our God and our country. She continued in saying, no matter what was next for us, we would be okay. Then she did what any good Christian teacher would do, she prayed. I will never forget Mrs. Sanders for her tranquil, but yet bold spirit that day. Truly a legendary Christian educator that will be cherished and missed." - Steven Holland, financial representative, HHS class of 2004