Steve Chambers: The Education of a Lifetime

After spending more than half of his life in a classroom, 72-year-old Wiggins resident Steve Chambers has learned a thing or two.

He witnessed education in Mississippi transform more than once.

“I saw education go from segregation to integration, and from book-learning to technology,” Chambers said.

The all-white Wiggins High School and the all-Black Locker High School merged to form Stone High two years after he graduated.

“I came up in some strange times, but we made it,” he said.

In his 32-year career, he rose through the administrative ranks to become the second African-American administrator for Stone High School since integration, following in the footsteps of former Locker High School principal, Needham Jones.

Jones, among many other educators, was an inspiration to him.

Chambers can still rattle off the names of every teacher who taught him in chronological order. There was something extraordinary about the teachers in his early life. 

“They were exceptional,” he said, with a quiet glow of admiration in his eyes.

His teachers could manage over 30 children in a mixed classroom, helping students with learning disabilities keep up with the rest of the class long before special education classes.

 “Those teachers made sure everybody in that classroom could learn,” he said.

It is no surprise to anyone that Chambers became an educator. 

“I was surrounded by teachers,” he said.

His father’s five sisters all became teachers. His older cousins became teachers. His mother, Bernice, taught for several years.

His father, Kernevis Chambers, was not a teacher. He worked long hours in the lumber industry to feed seven children. At the dinner table, Kernevis always encouraged his children to pursue higher education. He meant every word.

As the third-oldest, Chambers was the first of his siblings to attend college. He enrolled at Jackson State University. When he was not studying, he was earning money to pay tuition.

On the weekends and during summer breaks, Chambers worked at the local pickle plant and did yard work. When college students were getting dressed up to see James Brown or Percy Sledge in concert, Chambers offered to shine their shoes for a price.

“I would stay up all night polishing shoes,” he said. 

Every penny counted toward a bigger payoff.

“The money I made was given to my mother,” Chambers said. “If I made $200, my mother got $140. I lived on the rest.”

His younger siblings were close enough in age to enroll behind him. At one point, his father had three children enrolled in college.

One weekend home, Chambers expected a larger spread of food. He expected meat on the table, bought with the money he sent. Instead, the meal was scarce.

He asked Kernevis if he should quit school for a while and help him pay for his siblings’ tuition.

“I thought you had more sense than that,” his father told him. “You have one more than semester to go. I can’t let you quit.”

Chambers didn’t quit. His father never quit either. 

Kernevis helped pay for all of his younger children to attend college.

Chambers graduated from JSU in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in science.

He applied for a teaching position with the Harrison County School District within months of graduation.

“When I got to the superintendent’s office, there was a room full of teachers applying for the job,” he said. “As soon as I walked through the door, a man said, ‘Does anybody here have a degree in science?’ I raised my hand.”

The principal brought Chambers to the front of the line and hired him on the spot.

“Be here Monday at 7 a.m.,” the principal told him.

Chambers was with the HCSD for the next 22 years as a science teacher. In 1992, he returned to Wiggins to become Stone High School’s assistant principal. He loved his job even as it became a bigger challenge.

On more than one occasion, Chambers removed weapons from students. Parents called his home phone at night, asking him to help find them.

“It’s a strenuous job, more stressful than people realize,” he said.

Chambers grew up in an old-fashioned era when daily prayer kept most students on the right path. The stinging smack of a wooden paddle caught up with the rest.

“Everybody in that class got the chance to say the Pledge of Allegiance and lead a prayer,” he said. “Prayer never hurt anybody… that’s just how I feel about it.”

He knows some people believe differently now.

Chambers says teachers today do an amazing job with the slight support they often experience.

“Many teachers today spend their own money to give their classrooms what they need,” he said. “I applaud those teachers.”

He officially retired in 2002. He still considers himself a teacher, even without a classroom.

“You never stop being an educator,” he said. “There’s a love for it you never get over.”

As an assistant principal, Chambers would often sit in on classes. He was there to mentor younger teachers. He watched to learn as well. 

Chambers still sees his students’ success as a reflection on his own career.

Pride wells inside his chest when he walks into a business owned by a former student. 

In darker moments, he visited a former student in prison. 

“That’s heartbreaking,” he said. “That student could have been a doctor or lawyer. They had skills. But it went wrong somewhere.”

His classroom was a garden to cultivate. Chambers planted seeds of success and prayed for growth.

He knows an excellent teacher is worth their weight in gold. He knows they make the difference between a thriving student and a struggling student. 

There’s a special balance of soft skills that go into helping a student love learning.

“Teachers have to clown with students sometimes to get their attention. Show them you are human and that you love them,” he said. “If you don’t love children, you have no business anywhere near education.”

He still smiles when he drives past the high school. The specific memories meld together in his mind. He calls them “the good times.”

“Teaching is for a lifetime,” he said.