Clemson alumna fights back after brush with death to pursue special education career
After the accident, people told Kelsey Simms many things. The police told her she drove her car 60 miles per hour into the back of a stopped—and thankfully childless—school bus. They told her that when her Honda Civic hit, the interior crumpled underneath the back of the bus, wedging her inside.
Her grandparents happened to drive by the accident but didn’t recognize the crushed car, and they later told her that they thought there was no chance the driver could have lived. People told Kelsey lots of things, but mostly they talked about trauma.
The word “trauma” got thrown around frequently, and the experience provided her with a unique understanding of the word. The trauma her body suffered in the accident. How her brain injury was traumatic. The unexpected side effects she might face months or even years down the road due to her trauma. But to Kelsey, the event that changed her life forever was less traumatic and more of a blank.
“Imagine driving down the road, blinking, and then opening your eyes to a hospital room; from my perspective, that’s what happened,” Kelsey says. “There were days between what happened and me waking up, but for me it happened in an instant.”
She didn’t need anyone to tell her why it happened, though. That much was clear. Kelsey was in the midst of her senior year as a special education major at Clemson, in the high-stress period of student teaching. Both of Kelsey’s sisters have autism. Her younger sister had become so sick she stopped eating, and was admitted to the hospital for several weeks.
Kelsey made these problems her own. She was homesick for Woodbridge, Virginia. She felt like she wasn’t doing enough for her sister. She was feeling the stress of student teaching. She was barely sleeping. She was overloaded.
The morning of the accident, she had just come home from visiting her family and was running late and was in a mad rush to gather school supplies for a cooking lesson, and normally the route she took to school was fast, but this morning it was crowded, and cruise control was on, and then it happened.
Crash. Blink. Hospital.
“I know exactly how I got under that bus,” Kelsey says. “It’s not something I did; it’s something I didn’t do. I didn’t take care of myself.”
What followed the accident was a series of setbacks, false starts, restarts and blind leaps of faith. Against the advice of many and with the support of few, Kelsey would find her way back to Clemson to finish what she started, despite lasting physical and mental impairments. In the process, she would confirm why a career in education had been her calling all along.
Kelsey’s college career didn’t begin in Clemson, nor did she start out as an education major. She started work on a business degree at a university in her home state, but even while pursuing that degree she somehow worked what she knew into essays and papers: autism and more generally special needs populations.
Every male on her father’s side of the family went to Clemson, and her father had bluntly informed her that she wouldn’t get in to the university. Of course, that just made her want to be a Tiger even more. She was denied twice before transferring to Tri-County Technical College and later getting accepted to Clemson as a bridge student.
She was drawn to special education largely because of her sisters; through them, she grew up in special education classrooms. She had spent countless hours in Individualized Education Program meetings with her mother that concerned both her sisters. She also saw where many of her sisters’ teachers fell short, so she came to the field a little more prepared than most to work with this student population.
“My sisters have never told me they loved me before, but they showed me every day,” Kelsey says. “I knew that kind of understanding gave me insight into how to approach these students and what to realistically expect. I also knew I wouldn’t be the scientist who found a cure for intellectual disabilities, so this was the next best thing.”
For a long period of time after her accident, it appeared that her father may have been right about Kelsey’s prospects of graduating from Clemson and working with students with autism. Her parents had moved her back home with the intention of placing her in a rehab center in Virginia for her brain injury.
Because the accident occurred in South Carolina, she was placed on a two-year waiting list. Due to the wait, she moved back to South Carolina for rehab, but was presented with another waiting list because she had left the state. Kelsey decided to move back to Virginia and go without rehab.
Her only respite during this period was a job she managed to get at a daycare center near her parents’ house, which was her only option because she couldn’t drive due to her injury. She quickly went from assisting in different classrooms to having a Pre-K classroom of her own. Beyond that, there were no prospects.
“I couldn’t go any further without a degree,” Kelsey says. “A week later—out of nowhere—I got an email from Dr. [Pam] Stecker encouraging me to come back to Clemson.”
Kelsey says she had looked at every option outside of going back to Clemson, partially because she didn’t want to leave her sisters again, but more so because of her fear of returning anywhere close to the site of her accident. She thought that in the minds of Clemson faculty, she was a distant memory.
Pam Stecker, professor of special education at Clemson and one of Kelsey’s advisors before and after her accident, says that couldn’t have been further from the truth. She says she will likely never forget Kelsey for as long as she lives.
A leap of faith
Pam clearly recalls the panic she and other faculty felt when people were trying to reach Kelsey on the day of the accident and how she felt when she left multiple messages for Kelsey with no response.
Her worst fears came true when the resource officer at Kelsey’s student teaching placement called with news of the accident. Pam visited Kelsey in the hospital the next day and saw the effects firsthand.
Pam said she met Kelsey’s aunt and uncle when she came into her room, and Kelsey’s uncle showed her pictures of Kelsey’s car. To this day, Pam has trouble talking about what she saw in the photo.
“I gasped when I saw it,” Pam says. “I don’t know how anyone could have survived; when her uncle showed me the picture, I started to cry, and I have cried about it many times since.”
Pam remembers speaking with Kelsey and how difficult it was for Kelsey to focus on any one conversation. Kelsey was agitated and hyperactive, so much so that she had difficulty completing thoughts. Pam didn’t stay in her room long; she only wanted to see Kelsey and reassure her that she and other faculty members were there to support her in whatever decision she needed to make.
She kept in touch with Kelsey over the months following her withdrawal from Clemson, never pushing but always encouraging her to return if she was able. It was Kelsey who eventually contacted her mere days before the deadline for applications had arrived asking what it would take for her to come back. Kelsey says without Pam’s encouragement, she never would have returned.
“My parents didn’t think I would do it—I didn’t think I could do it—but after [Pam and I] talked about it the situation didn’t seem so impossible,” Kelsey says. “I begged and pleaded with my aunt and uncle to let me stay with them, and I didn’t even find out where my student teaching placement was until a week before I left Virginia.”
Within a week, Kelsey moved back to South Carolina, got a job—against everyone’s advice—in a tanning salon and was once again a student in the College of Education. Her student teaching placement, Alexander Elementary School in Greenville, was more than an hour away from her, and because she couldn’t drive, she became one of Uber’s best customers. It also took place in the fall, which is highly unusual for student teaching through Clemson’s special education program.
Rebuilding and compensating
Kelsey says everything about her student teaching situation seemed unsustainable, which is why she was thankful that Clemson paired her with Amanda Wilson, a 26-year-veteran of special education classrooms. Kelsey described Amanda as a stern but kind teacher who didn’t lead a classroom so much as she commanded it. Without the right mentor at the right time, Kelsey still isn’t sure she would have succeeded.
Kelsey decided not to immediately reveal to Amanda everything about her history leading up to her return to Clemson. Instead, Amanda remembers Kelsey dropping bits and pieces of information before finally filling in all the gaps between her first student teaching experience and her arrival in Amanda’s classroom.
“No one goes through life unscathed, and it’s the people around you that can pick you up,” Amanda says. “Kelsey had those people in her life, she just needed her confidence built back up. I saw that happen over the course of her student teaching here.”
Amanda also saw how Kelsey was able to compensate for the lasting effects from her accident. Kelsey says issues with her memory were and continue to be the most glaring. She also noticed an occasional disconnect between her facial expressions and what she was actually feeling, which can mean her students, coworkers and family members can misconstrue some nonverbal communication.
As her student teaching progressed, the experience went from an uphill battle to something Kelsey actually thought she could complete. Pam and other faculty members helped her secure financial hardship assistance through the College of Education, which helped greatly with day-to-day expenses. Amanda coordinated with coworkers at Alexander Elementary so that Kelsey could car pool in lieu of two hours in an Uber every day.
Pam says she and other faculty members were continually impressed by how much she had grown over the course of student teaching and how much she had matured since her first years at Clemson. Despite obvious difficulties she was experiencing, Pam says Kelsey somehow just “pushed through.”
“Her speech was a little slow, and it took her time to work through things, but she was using every compensatory strategy she could to help her focus,” Pam says. “During class sessions that accompanied student teaching, I remember her taking a lot of notes. I’m not exaggerating when I say she wrote everything I said. It was fatiguing for me to watch her do that during these sessions, so I can only imagine what she was going through.”
Kelsey says the months of student teaching happened fast. In a blink. Suddenly she was on stage, walking toward Clemson’s president to receive her diploma. She describes it as the most amazing moment of her life.
“My parents threw me a graduation party, and my dad told everyone that it had been 30 years to the day since he graduated from Clemson,” Kelsey says. “He doesn’t get emotional, but everyone could tell he was in that moment. He was proud of me. And then he told me I needed to get my master’s degree.”
A clean slate
Graduate education is understandably taking a back seat for Kelsey at the moment. She’s busy enough now in her own classroom at River Oaks Elementary in Virginia, which happens to be the same special education classroom that housed one of her sisters in elementary school.
By the time Kelsey was hired at River Oaks, the special education program had been abandoned for six years. In addition to the usual stresses of a first-year teacher, she was also faced with building a special education program from the ground up and filling a classroom that was literally empty.
Others might have been worried about the prospect of Kelsey having to tackle such a monumental challenge in her first year, but anyone who witnessed what she accomplished on her second trip through Clemson knew better. Amanda knew what Kelsey was capable of; where others saw a potential stumbling block, Amanda saw a benefit.
“It hasn’t been easy by any means, but it’s been great for her to come in with a clean slate and build it,” Amanda says. “When she worked under me, she was always thinking of ways to do things differently and improvise, especially when things weren’t working. She adapted. I love hearing from her about how well things are going now.”
Kelsey still lives with the specter of “what ifs.” What if a student throws something in class, hits her in the head and she begins having seizures? What if her mood suddenly changes and, because of her brain injury, she doesn’t even realize it? What if she’s no longer able to perform her job adequately? What if one day all the memories from the accident come flooding back as she’s been warned they might?
She fights off these questions with a simple lesson she learned upon her return to Virginia a few months after the accident. It’s been the key to her success during her first year of teaching. It was also how she worked up the courage to go back to Clemson in the first place. She says it happened when she “hit rock bottom,” and she remembers the exact moment.
She was in front of the Fairfax County Courthouse with no way to get home. She had taken a taxi there but didn’t have enough money to get home. She talked to her friend, Paul, over the phone about it, but told him she had it under control. She clearly didn’t, so Paul took off work to give her a ride.
Paul is now Kelsey’s husband. She says he’s been by her side ever since, always pushing her to ask for help when she needs it. He helped her realize that the act of asking for help had been completely foreign to her because she had gone most of her life without ever asking for help from anyone.
Kelsey had gone most of her life putting herself in the back seat to the needs of others, so she never felt justified in asking for help. She went through the laundry list of people that had been there for her—her parents, fellow students, Pam, other Clemson faculty—people who would have gladly relieved some of the burden that caused her to be in the mindset she was in the morning of the accident.
She realized that asking for help is something a stubborn person has to learn how to do.
“It was my come-to-Jesus moment, and it hit me hard: I can ask for help,” Kelsey says. “My sisters can’t ask for help, but I should have asked because I can. If I have any advice to give from what I went through, it’s never hesitate to ask.”