Teacher recalls living near Mexico-United States border

Shelly Patterson shares her story of living, teaching in South Texas


Photo Courtesy of Shelly Patterson

With her pink polka-dot party hat, social studies teacher Shelly Patterson celebrates a student’s birthday with her class. Isaac Galvan’s parents couldn’t afford a party, so she threw him one herself. Patterson taught in the Rio Grande Valley for one year. “There’s a whole world at the very southern tip of Texas,” Patterson said. “In fact, a lot of people who go there, mostly it’s retirees that will move there, they call it Narnia because it’s just a whole other world.”

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She brought color to what one of her students said would be a gloomy day. Shelly Patterson strung streamers with silver tinsel on her classroom wall, and donned a pink and purple polka-dot party hat. Isaac Galvan’s parents couldn’t afford a birthday party, but his teacher wanted to surprise him and make his day special.

After living in Prosper for 14 years and teaching at Prosper High School, Patterson, a social studies teacher, decided to relocate to Brownsville, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley with her family to give her children a more diverse experience. While COVID-19 created circumstances that returned them back to Collin County, she said she will not forget their experience on the border.

Using her arms to demonstrate, social studies teacher Shelly Patterson introduces a project about artifacts from different kingdoms of Africa to her sixth-period African American Studies class. She said she loves teaching social studies because she gets to see many students’ perspectives broaden. “They can then understand, not necessarily, maybe, agree with, but they understand and can empathize with people who have different experiences and come from different thought processes, and their perspective really broadens,” Patterson said. “To see that happen, especially in this day and age where there’s so much conflict, there’s so much negativity and anger, to know that I can have a little part in helping someone to be a little more patient and understanding of why someone feels differently than they do.” (Jake Radcliffe)

“There were several factors that we moved to Brownsville, but the main one was to give my kids a different cultural experience, where they can have daily interactions with people from different cultures, different socioeconomic categories, different life experiences, a very broad array of experiences,” Patterson said. “However, the more practical reason is that my husband got promoted in his work, and he would fly to different places all over the country. So, it didn’t matter where we lived, as long as we lived near an airport, and the Rio Grande Valley, or Brownsville, has South Padre Island Airport.”

Patterson said she wanted to teach again to experience the local students’ perspectives, and open their minds up to many different ideas and different perspectives.

“I wanted to just stay home and make sure that my kids were able to get settled, and it was a big culture shock for them, so I kind of wanted to just be there and support them. So, the first year I didn’t (teach,) but the second year I did,” Patterson said. “I taught in a little rural school, at an agricultural-based community called Rio Hondo.”

Mrs. Patterson is a great teacher. She knows her students. She likes to get along with her students, and she doesn’t want us to do any lower than what we can do. She only teaches at the highest level.”

— Kendall Norwood, junior

As a teacher in one of the poorest counties in Texas, Patterson taught many children in poverty.

“Being from Collin County, when you hear that term, living in poverty and things like that, you kind of get a picture in your mind of those commercials where kids have flies on their face and stuff like that, but, honestly, it’s not like that,” Patterson said. “The families have, like I said, really adapted to their situations, and the students are able to live a normal life. I also think that everyone’s in the same situation, and there’s not a big disparity. If there were some places where you could see people on a daily basis that had so much more, then that would be a little bit different, but the majority of the people were on the same level, for the most part, so they themselves didn’t necessarily see a difference. They were just normal kids, just like here.

According to Patterson, many people don’t know about the culture and people in South Texas.

“There’s a whole world at the very southern tip of Texas,” Patterson said. “In fact, a lot of people who go there, mostly it’s retirees that will move there, they call it Narnia because it’s just a whole other world.”

Wearing a sun hat, social studies teacher Shelly Patterson relaxes on one of the many beaches of South Padre Island. One of her favorite parts of living in Brownsville was being close to the beach. “We lived 35 minutes from South Padre Island, so it didn’t have to be a thing where it was a vacation,” Patterson said. “If there was a Tuesday with no homework, let’s head to the beach, and we could be back before bedtime.” (Photo Courtesy of Shelly Patterson)

Patterson said she encountered people who got stuck in what she calls “repressive adaptability.”

“They would get so used to their living conditions and occupation and education level that they would not even aspire to change it, so they could be happy with very little. But, then they would become so used to that that nobody would try to encourage the kids to have more,” Patterson said. “I don’t necessarily mean more material possessions, although that does go hand in hand, but also more education, more skills to earn, to have more income earning potential. So that was something that at times was frustrating as an educator, to try to work through having them be excited about higher level thinking.”

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Patterson’s husband lost two jobs. The new job he was hired for brought the family back to Prosper.

Shelly is an adorable, genuinely good human being. She is just an absolute all-around amazing human being. She’s been a part of my children’s lives. She’s been a part of our lives. She’s always gone way out of her way to make sure that everyone around her feels loved.”

— Farzeen Cama, previous neighbor of Patterson

“The job he got was not national, it was regional, and so the company that hired him required us to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and, of course the first place we looked at was to consider moving back to Prosper, since my kids already had friends and knew some people here,” Patterson said. “Then, I just thought, ‘Well, if I get a job back here at Prosper High School, then we can consider moving here,’ and, luckily, I got hired fairly quickly.”

Even though Patterson lives in Prosper again, she said she will never forget the people she met in the Rio Grande Valley, including moments such as celebrating important days for her students.

“You will never find people, as far as I know, that are so kind, and so humble, and can be happy with so little than the people there,” Patterson said. “We have just never, you know, experienced that in a higher income community. The feel is just, when you accomplish one goal, you want another thing, just wanting more and wanting more, and that’s kind of human nature, but to be surrounded constantly by people who are so happy, and so content with, you know, what we would consider dirt poor is very humbling. It makes you appreciate things, and it makes you really have a perspective that you don’t need a lot of things you thought you needed.”

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This article updated on September 27 to add additional information, including a poll.