One college professor saves life of another

Lauren Schroth, Reporter

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It’s sixth grade. The teacher announces the class is going to read aloud. Cameron MacElvee’s heart-rate begins to increase rapidly. She can’t be called on, not today, “Please don’t call on me, please,” MacElvee says to herself.

That was ?? years ago. Today, Cameron MacElvee is an SCC English 101 and 102 professor. When MacElvee speaks, it is evident that she is well educated and loves her daughter, but some things aren’t so obvious.

Concealed by her humble personality and flawless skin, hides a child who felt overlooked at home and at school, a child who said that she fell through the cracks, and a young adult who acted out and misbehaved because she didn’t feel smart.

MacElvee wasn’t given a headstart.

The youngest of four, MacElvee’s parents divorced when she was still in her mother’s womb. Working full time to support her four children, MacElvee’s mother didn’t get to spend much one-on-one time with her, nor did her mother have any expectations for her children to go to college. MacElvee didn’t even attend pre-school or kindergarten, describing her childhood home life as a one of chaos. “With four kids and a single working mom, I was overlooked,” MacElvee said.

She explained that while her brothers and sisters were in school, she played alone without interaction from the babysitters.

Then MacElvee entered the first grade. While sitting across a small square high-top table on the swivel chair at Wendy’s, MacElvee went back in time, reminiscing on the enjoyment she experienced from listening to her first-grade teacher read aloud after afternoon recess.

“I loved it. I had never had anyone read to me as a child. It was a big big, big deal to me,” MacElvee said. The softness in her face as she looked back on that childhood memory made her appear 30 years younger.

Though MacElvee loved listening to the stories that came out of the books, she couldn’t comprehend them herself. MacElvee was passed along year after year as she fell through the cracks of the elementary school reading curriculum. It wasn’t until MacElvee took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in sixth grade, that her teachers realized that MacElvee couldn’t read.   The rest of middle school and high school brought on remediation and developmental courses.

“Once you’re that far behind, it’s hard to catch up,” MacElvee said. MacElvee’s trouble in school took a toll on her self-esteem. “I was a pretty bad kid. I got in trouble a lot. I fought a lot. I was pretty shy and introverted so I got picked on. I was shy and I felt stupid,” MacElvee said. “I remember pretty much resigning myself to being kind of stupid. So I never thought of myself as ‘I can do this.’”

MacElvee was able to get by just enough to graduate high school. She even wrote a short poem that was submitted into a contest by one of her teachers and it won an award. “It was little bleeps like that, that would make my mom think that I was fine,” MacElvee said.

“When I graduated high school, I had a 1.8 GPA. I was at the bottom 5 percent of my high-school class. My high-school counselor actually told my mom on senior night, because my ACT score was only 7 and you have to have a 21 to be college ready, that for me, they were looking at the military, beautician school, or marriage. But I really wanted to go to college,” MacElvee said.

MacElvee went on to enroll in Phoenix Junior College (now Phoenix College). Because of her low ACT score, she was given a probationary period. As an 18-year-old college student,, MacElvee met her Philosophy 101 professor, Dr. Sullivan.

Her first assignment was to be in essay format. She failed it. Dr. Sullivan pulled her aside and questioned her about her work.

“I have a reading deficiency,” MacElvee told him. Dr. Sullivan asked MacElvee to read to him.

“He said to me, ‘You can’t read. Girly, I’m going to teach you how to read,” MacElvee said.

“What he did was he actually showed me how to read and how to learn from my reading and to connect my reading to my writing,” MacElvee said.

“He told me ‘the best thing you can do is to read as much as you can,’” MacElvee said.

“Every educated person should have a basic understanding of the great works of literature because you need to be able to talk about them and how they fit into history and politics and everything,” MacElvee said. “And he told me, ‘that would be the greatest gift you could give yourself,’ and he handed me a piece of paper.”

MacElvee described the piece of paper as having about 50 titles listed – great American titles like All Is Quiet on the Western Front. The list included classical works of art like Moby Dick, philosophical literature like Socrates, Plato and Shakespeare.

“He told me, ‘Go look up these books. Most of your classmates have already read these,’ which they hadn’t, but at the time I thought they did. They probably read the Cliffnotes,” MacElvee said as she laughed.

After three different schools and seven years, MacElvee got her undergrad degree. “I tell my student’s when they get a bad grade on their paper, ‘You’re only a failure if you give up,’” MacElvee said.

“It took me seven years and I have Fs and Ds on that undergraduate certificate,” MacElvee said. “Don’t be afraid.”

Immediately after receiving her bachelors degree in English and education, MacElvee began to teach. Since then, MacElvee achieved her masters degree in counseling and her PhD in educational psychology. MacElvee is still working on the list given to her by Sullivan.

“I will never finish that list!” MacElvee said laughing and signaling four inches with her hand. “Some of the books are this thick!”

“If Dr. Sullivan were here today, I would tell him he saved my life,” MacElvee said, “He probably doesn’t know the impact he had on a lot of students. I can’t believe I’m the only one.”

“My mom probably saw me working at Kmart, so he probably saved me from the trailer park and Kmart, the 10 kids and the abusive husband and the meth lab in the bathtub,” MacElvee said as she smiled wide, almost laughing but expressing appreciation and sincerity to the late Sullivan who saved her life in her freshman year of college.


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