ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Janice Pierce made a career of teaching children what others couldn't, in part by believing in them when others didn't.
This year, tragedy forced Pierce to muster uncommon strength to keep teaching those children, even after losing one of her own.
Pierce, a teacher at South Junior High School in St. Cloud, has taught students with emotional and behavioral issues there and at Technical High School for nearly two decades.
The job rarely fails to challenge her. But for Pierce, no on-the-job challenge could compare to the pain of her son's suicide earlier this year. Joseph Pierce was 20 when he died in July.
The hurt of losing Joseph is still fresh for Janice, as well as for her daughter and Joseph's sister, Jessica Pierce, 23. Yet in the months since the tragedy, Jessica says her mother has only become more dedicated to her students.
Watching that, Jessica says, has helped her cope with her brother's death.
"Seeing her be so strong through it, it was kind of like a message of hope," Jessica Pierce said. "It's obviously not the same. It will never be the same.
"But she still has young kids she can help."
Helping kids on the margins
Many of the children Pierce teaches struggle with attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety or other mental-health issues.
Pierce says those issues sometimes are seen through misbehavior in the classroom. Other teachers' observation of that misbehavior often leads the students to Pierce's classroom.
Many need help with skills more basic than reading or arithmetic — what Pierce calls "life skills" such as self-esteem or social interaction.
It's not a job for everyone. But for Pierce, it's a chance to make a difference for kids on the margins.
It's also a chance to help kids face some of the same issues with which Pierce grappled when she was a student. Pierce says she isn't afraid to talk to her students about her own struggles in the classroom. She says it gives her credibility with some who haven't had good experiences in school.
"I could really relate, and (students) knew that," Pierce said.
One of Pierce's former Tech students, Tahlia Moody, says Pierce has an uncommon ability to connect with students with emotional and behavioral challenges. Pierce had a way of acknowledging life's blemishes while emphasizing the need to do what you can to overcome them, Moody said.
"She was like: 'Life is not perfect. It won't be perfect. But it's what you make of it,'" Moody said.
As a teacher and single mom, Pierce hasn't had many vacations.
A richly deserved getaway seemed to be in store for Pierce in July, when she flew to Arizona in advance of departing on a family vacation to Hawaii.
But then Pierce got a call she'll never forget, telling her of her son's death.
Instead of heading to Hawaii, she flew back to Minnesota for Joseph's memorial service.
Janice says Joseph had many of the same issues her students face, such as depression and chemical addiction. Those demons did battle with what Janice describes as Joseph's warm, compassionate side.
One December, Janice was buying Christmas gifts for a student whose family couldn't afford any. Joseph, then an eighth-grader, caught wind of his mom's plan and volunteered his own money to help buy the gifts.
At Joseph's memorial service, Janice says the support from those who attended helped her get through it. Among those on hand at the service were dozens of Janice's former students. She says that show of support is something for which she'll always be grateful.
'She really cared'
One of those former students at the service was Leslie Wendt.
Wendt had Pierce as a teacher from 1996 to 1998 at Tech. Wendt says Pierce's genuine concern for students' well-being quickly became apparent to herself and others.
"She cared about what was going on in our lives. She really cared. You could feel that she did. It was not fake. It was not because it was her job," Wendt wrote in an email to the Times.
Pierce also had a knack for engaging with each student individually and customizing her teaching approach to them, Wendt said. The engagement took place in and out of the classroom.
Wendt said she worked part-time in child care while in high school. Pierce brought her own children to be cared for by Wendt, a gesture she never forgot.
"She put trust in me," Wendt wrote. "That does a great deal for a teenager with low self-esteem."
Pierce says watching her students' progress, emotionally and behaviorally, helps keep her going. That's long been the case, she said — but never more so than in recent months.
"I'm so proud," Pierce said, her eyes lighting up. "I've had so many kids turn into real successes.
"I always knew that they would."