Described as a "behind-the-scenes mover and shaker" in her nomination to be one of YWCA Madison’s 2016 Women of Distinction, Sherry Lucille has dedicated her career to making sure students grow and become successful in and out of school.
Lucille, who has been a guidance counselor in the Madison Metropolitan School District for 28 years, will be retiring in June. Her office has provided students a safe space to discuss their issues, receive advice, and open up about their lives. Working at Lincoln Elementary, Spring Harbor Middle and most recently at Memorial High School, she has watched students she counseled in the past grow up and bring their own children back to the same school to also get counseling. Being able to witness generations of families come through her school is something Lucille has described as among the highlights of her career.
As she prepares for retirement, Lucille reflects on her nearly three-decade career and opens up about why she has dedicated her life to supporting students and their families, and about her plans for the future.
Did you start off in the Madison area?
Yes, I started at Lincoln Elementary School and I believe that I was the first person hired by the Madison School District that was called an Elementary Counselor. There were two people working in schools before me who performed elementary counselor duties and responsibilities, but they didn’t have that title.
What made you want to pursue counseling as a career?
So when I was 16 I met this young man who appeared to be very nice, and that’s the reason that I was attracted to him. He was a community organizer, in a band, a lot of other noteworthy kind of things, but he turned out to be a very bad actor and got me into some stuff that I really would not possibly have gotten into without knowing him. And so I feel like I had some experience with violence with him, like domestic violence, and he introduced me to drugs and a bunch of other things.
And so when I was around 21 I started working with young people through my church at the time — middle school-aged kids — just teaching them the Bible and stuff like that. And so someone who knew me just kept saying, “You are really good with kids. Have you thought about doing something with young people,” and I had already graduated with a B.A. in communications from UW-Madison. So they said, “You know what can you do with that?”
And so I just became aware of a masters program at UW-Madison as well, four years after I had graduated, and decided to go to school to be a counselor because I really wanted to help young people to just be able to make wise decisions and to be able to fulfill their destiny. I feel like some of these things can snatch your destiny from you, and that had it not been for intervention in my life, I may never have gotten on the path to where I needed to be and to where I wanted to be.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences?
Just being able to sit down with young people and to really enter into their world, whether it be their pain or their joy, to be accepted into their reality and to help them achieve the goals that they have for themselves. I have had students say to me, “It’s because of you that I got into this college,” or “If it wasn’t for you this wouldn’t have happened.”
When I first started my internship — we used to have our internship out at Edgerton — and there was a really naughty little boy who just was always causing problems and acting out and stuff like that. When I left, he made me this kind of a life board of his life. I still have it, which was just so meaningful to me that I had touched his life in that way.
I’ve had kids come to Memorial who I had them when they were kids and they’re bringing their children to Memorial. I’m like, “Oh, my God.” They’re like, “Miss Lucille, you look the same.” I’m like, “Yeah. I don’t know, you guys keep getting older and I just stay the same. How is this possible?”
What have been some of your greatest challenges during your career?
I’ve had to enter into race relations with kids. I’ve had kids sit down and talk to me — white kids — and say things to me that I believe they wouldn’t say to any other black person. Not in a negative way, but they say things about race that I’m sure would stun some black people. But I’m like, “This is the place where you can be free, where you can say what you need to say.”
So the challenge is to help them, and so sometimes they look at me and I don’t think they see that I’m black, which is good and bad. But the challenge is to help them enter into someone else’s understanding or reality. I’ve had very wealthy kids not understand why a poor kid can’t be available to work on their project with them every day. They have to work. They don’t have the money to even buy the stuff for the project.
So those are some challenges. Bridging realities between different sets of kids or different sets of people. Even many times with my peers I’ve had to be the voice of blackness just in Madison, and sometimes I catch myself and I’m like, “You know, I’m not speaking for all black people. This is my reality and my thoughts.”
Can you elaborate on the first point you mentioned, where students would say some things they wouldn’t necessarily say to another black person?
This was a long time ago but one kid said something like, “You know how they are,” talking about black people. I’m like, “Wait a minute. I’m black. Hello.” But I didn’t get mad at him. I’m just introduced to his reality because they feel like I’m a safe place. People need to be able to say what’s on their heart and what’s in their mind to somebody and it’s better to be able to say it in a safe place where you can get some understanding, some reflection, some feedback to help you when you go out into the broader society. So I’m happy to be that for people.
OK. So on average, how many students did you see in a day or a week?
You know, it just depends on the setting. In middle school it was the most frequent and you know, it just depends. It could be anywhere from three to 10 and I guess it’s still that way now that I think about it. In high school they’re coming for everything. They’re coming for their schedule, they’re coming because they need a job, they’re coming because they can’t afford this, they’re coming because they’re having a relationship issue, and they’re coming because they are having a teacher issue. So yeah, I mean it could be more. It’s rare to have a day where you don’t see somebody.
I’m pretty sure you don’t! Outside of work, do you do any coaching or mentoring to students in your community?
I am the director of dance for Fountain of Life Church and have been since ’94, although I did take a break. And so I’ve had a myriad of kids come through that church in dance, because when I first started the dance ministry I was it and so I was over the children and the teens and the adults, and so everybody came through that.
And I used to work at Somerset. Our place used to be called Somerset and so our church used to go over to Somerset and work with the kids. There was a program called US, and it’s because our church used to be called Union Tabernacle, and so the U was for Union Tabernacle and S was for Somerset. And we would go and teach like Bible lessons for the kids in Somerset and have snacks and treats and stuff, and then the parents would come. And many of those parents who used to come to see what their children were doing, are now members of our church.
So now that you’re retiring, what’s next for you?
Well, I have a wonderful husband, John, and I write novels and I’m going to write a lot more because I will have the time. I have three novels that are currently published and I really, really want to work on more of my novel writing, my children’s writing, my non-fiction writing. I want to just do some stuff with my husband. I would like to travel. He’s been trying to learn Spanish so I’d like us to focus on trying to learn that together. Some music classes, some cooking classes. I like to cook so he’ll come to my cooking class, I’ll go to his Spanish class.