School of hard knocks helps Hunter High teacher relate to students
Aug 31, 2017 02:16PM
By Jana Klopsch
Jennifer Liddell sits with her daughter, Hailey. Liddell said she’s grateful for the wonderful relationship she has with her. (Courtesy Jennifer Liddell)
It was April 2010 and Jennifer Liddell’s mom had just sent her daughter an email detailing the death of the mother’s Yorkie dog.
Liddell had responded, “That’s too bad.”
Her mother told Liddell she was being flippant and was frustrated that she didn’t share the heartbreak for a dog the mother had loved.
While Liddell always had dogs of her own, whom she loved, she felt her mother’s level of grief seemed more commensurate with a lost child than lost dog. But after being chastised, years of experience with this mother-daughter relationship had taught Liddell there was nothing she could say to convince her mother her tone was heartfelt.
It was the last time they spoke.
Liddell teaches English at Hunter High School and is advisor to the debate team. Her credentials though, are extensive.
A 1990 graduate of Ben Lomond High School in Ogden, Liddell was a national Sterling Scholar finalist and a member of the National Honor Society. She graduated from Weber State in 1994 double majoring in theatre and psychology acquiring her teaching credential simultaneously. In 2012, she earned her master’s degree in English.
But it’s Liddell’s life experience that may prove her greatest strength as an educator.
“I think sometimes when other people, even teachers, have gone through life struggles, [kids] connect more. And when they connect, they work for you better,” Liddell said.
The parents who adopted her as an infant divorced when she was 4 and Liddell proceeded to move around the country with her mom. Her mother remarried relocating the duo to Arizona before another divorce forced an eastbound trek to Maryland where they lived for a year.
They returned westward to live in Las Vegas where her mother would work for the IRS. After moving to different apartments while in Sin City, Liddell recalled overhearing a conversation where her mother told her grandmother that she was trying to buy a house.
“I was like, ‘move me again and I will leave,’” she said.
It wasn’t simply the moving around and attending nine schools in six years that bothered Liddell. It was the alcohol abuse, the child abuse and strict overbearing regime she lived under.
Working for the IRS in Las Vegas means their work involves going after mobsters. “She made it sound big and scary,” Liddell said of her mom’s job. The person her mother replaced was found dead in her closet, killed by an ex-boyfriend. Paranoia and mistrust had set in.
Liddell said her mother would research who could be her friend. They had to pass certain requirements. The friend had to have permanent residence in a house, had to be female and had to be a member of her church. Her mother required her to be home 15 minutes after the school bell rang, making socializing with other students impossible.
“Which meant I had no friends,” Liddell said.
Liddell likens her childhood to the 1981 film, “Mommie Dearest” that details the life of an abusive mother with her adoptive child. The movie depicts the mother locking her daughter in the pool house, beating her with a wire hanger and cutting off chunks of the daughter’s hair to humiliate her.
“There are scenes in that movie that I’m like, ‘I lived that,’” Liddell said.
It reached a point of no return, she had to get away.
One day, when Liddell was 13, she went to school with a backpack full of clothes wearing as many layers of clothing as she could.
“My [adoptive] father came and picked me up at the school, went to serve papers at the court house, got across state lines and I never went back,” she said.
From thereafter, Liddell described her relationship with her mother as “forced.”
“People would try to make me go back to visit her. I didn’t want to, I kept telling them ‘no, it’s bad.’ Nobody ever believed me,” she said.
It was Memorial Day 2010, decades after Liddell ran away from home, when she received a middle-of-the-night phone call from police. Her mother had been found dead in her house.
The last known contact anyone had with her was the email conversation where she told her daughter about the death of her beloved Yorkie.
Liddell said her mother had overdosed and was lying dead for four weeks on the floor in her house before anybody found her.
In the ensuing years after her mother’s death, Liddell did lots of research regarding her mother’s nature determining that she had narcissistic personality disorder, where a person has an inflated sense of self-worth.
“Didn’t help me while I was growing up, but it was really educational after the fact,” Liddell said.
High School and college marked a turn to normalcy for the teenage Liddell.
After a freshman year in which Liddell said she made “a lot of stupid choices” and a sophomore year she spent mostly alone, Liddell decided to follow the advice of a boy she had a crush on.
“His advice was right, which was basically: you get involved in a lot of school activities,” she recalled.
She played sports, got involved in theatre—even performed at nearby elementary schools and junior highs about the dangers of drugs—was a volunteer usher at the Dee Events Center and got really involved with her church at the time.
“I was trying to make myself as well rounded as possible knowing that nobody was going to help me with college so I had to find my way to do it myself,” Liddell said.
It was performing in high school—whether with band, theatre, debate and choir—that provided her a family and way of escaping reality.
“I think more kids want/need to feel this sense of family that the performing arts provided for me, but turn to negative options like gangs,” Liddell wrote in a later email.
Her father admitted to her once that he wasn’t much support in the home, so Liddell basically raised herself from age 13 onwards. That lack of support culminated in a high school graduation to forget.
“Not a single soul, not even my father who taught there, came to my high school graduation,” Liddell said.
He claimed illness wouldn’t allow him to attend. “But when I got home that night, he was sitting in his recliner eating a BLT sandwich, I wasn’t convinced he was really sick.”
She got married and moved to California where her husband was from. Liddell remembers teaching at a school where a student committed suicide on campus.
“He was a kid who was very bullied, and so it changed the atmosphere on campus, people started to be aware—students came to realize that bullying does have severe consequences, and therefore maybe they shouldn’t be such jerks,” she said.
Liddell got pregnant with their first child and at seven months, her husband decided to leave her for his high school sweetheart.
Six months later, she was living in Utah and had a party with her old friends. At the party, she rekindled a friendship with a friend from high school. Six months after that, they were married.
“He was the drum major in the music department,” Liddell said of her second husband.
She now has four kids: Ethan, a senior; Hayden and Hailey, two sophomores (boy and girl twins); and Andrew, a sixth grader. Liddell said she was nervous her twins would be two girls considering her own relationship with her mother, but that’s not the case.
“I frequently look at my children and grateful is the first word that comes to mind because I have a relationship with my daughter, a good one. [She’s] my best friend so I’m grateful,” Liddell said.
It’s a family with wide interests. The group is all Manchester United and Real Salt Lake fans with Hayden playing competition soccer. They’re also a musical family with a husband who plays bagpipes competitively and daughter who sings and dances every chance she gets. Ethan has even competed at the world championships in robotics.
“Robots, soccer and music. That’s what it is,” Liddell said of her life outside of teaching.
Liddell’s personal challenges have proven valuable in her teaching career establishing connections with students traversing their own struggles in life. It’s allowed for a relatability, Liddell said, especially with the students of West Valley City.
“I get along with these kids…[they’ve] gone through a lot of life struggles,” she said. “When someone is crying in my room, I go ‘what’s the matter?’ They say ‘my parents are getting divorced.”
Then with an understanding nod she can say:
“I’ve been there too.”