Throughout the ups and downs of each school year, LaMona Lemarr often reminds her middle school students of an important lesson.
“Who you are and what you say is important to the people around you,” Lemarr said. “I know you’re a kid and you don’t think about those things, but your words are impactful. So it’s really important that your words are positive.”
Lemarr’s belief in the ripple effect of positivity is based on her own life journey, which includes a childhood altered by tragedy and an adulthood highlighted by personal triumph. Fresh off her 14th year as a teacher in the Pasadena Independent School District in Texas, Lemarr speaks with the passion and enthusiasm of a younger educator.
“I absolutely adore being a teacher,” said Lemarr, who taught science the last three years at San Jacinto Intermediate School in Pasadena. “I’m so fortunate to be able to do this. Most of my students say that I just kind of get them. I get what they’re going through, understand their struggles, and don’t judge them for it.”
Lemarr, who grew up in a small town outside of Bay City, Texas, knows more than most what it feels like to be judged. As a 20-year-old in college in 1988, Lemarr came out as a gay woman and felt immediate repercussions. She lost close friends who weren’t comfortable associating with someone who was out, and faced difficult questions from family members.
Lemarr, who babysat to help pay her own way through college, was even told by a set of parents she worked for that she could no longer be around their two children. Rather than sulk, Lemarr did her best to maintain an optimistic attitude while discovering herself with a newfound confidence.
“What I didn’t realize back then was the positive impact that I had on people around me,” Lemarr said. “I thought coming out was only having a negative impact.”
An unexpected phone call
Five years ago—nearly three decades after first telling people she was gay—Lemarr received an unexpected phone call from one of the former children she babysat in college. Jonny Cameron, the co-founder of Up North Pride in Michigan, wanted Lemarr to know about the pivotal role she played in their life.
“My family was so cruel to you and you took it in stride and still lived your life,” Cameron told Lemarr. “Because you were so vulnerable and so honest, when I came out to my mom, it was easier because of you.”
Those powerful words humbled and touched Lemarr in a profound way. They also inspired her to continue to help students blossom in all aspects of their lives.
“I realized very quickly that even though it can be hard to do, what we do with our stories matters,” Lemarr said. “You never know who you’re impacting, so living your own authentic self is really important.”
Lemarr helps her students express themselves in a variety of ways. For some, she uses regular one-on-one mentoring sessions in the classroom to establish a rapport that leads to meaningful conversations. For others, Lemarr has enjoyed using Along, a teacher-connection builder that allows students to reach out to her in their own comfortable way and helps her understand them on a deeper level.
No matter how her students reach out to her, Lemarr’s goal is to create a culture of inclusivity in the classroom where all feel welcome. Diane Phelan, Principal at San Jacinto Intermediate, said Lemarr has been successful at doing that because she “really loves and invests in all of her students.”
‘Helping out the underdogs’
“I felt like an underdog growing up and I love helping out the underdogs here,” Lemarr said. “Kids need to have these important conversations about life and resilience. I want all of my students to know that they have someone who is on their side. I tell them, ‘Hey, I’m like you. My life wasn’t perfect either. But there are many ways to be successful. I believe in you.’”
Lemarr’s father died when she was 7, but she uses a more descriptive word when discussing the sudden end to his life.
“He was murdered,” Lemarr said. “Words matter, because it invokes a different emotion. That’s important to me.”
Lemarr, who also grew up with an adoptive mother who struggled with mental health, had a difficult time in the years following her father’s death. At the age of 15, Lemarr dropped out of school for six months. But that same year, her outlook was brightened when her foster mom became her legal guardian and got her back in school.
For the first time, Lemarr felt she had a trusted adult in her corner and she began thriving inside and outside of the classroom. After college, Lemarr became a successful general manager in the restaurant industry.
“That job really fed my high-energy personality, but I was working all the time and knew I needed a change,” Lemarr said. “I always joke that I got into education to save a relationship I was in at the time. Well, that relationship is long gone, but I quickly realized that education is where I should have been the entire time because I really love connecting with the kids.”
Today, Lemarr has a new relationship after marrying her wife, Gina, in May 2021. She’s also become a “bonus mom” to Gina’s three adult children and Lemarr is discovering a late-in-life love of family board games such as Scattergories.
“I’m basically a big kid these days,” Lemarr said, laughing.
This fall, Lemarr is transitioning into a new role as an Instructional Coach at PISD’s Rick Schneider Middle School in Houston. Lemarr, a former youth sports coach, will continue to connect with students and help them realize the potential impact they can have on others through their actions and words.
“A big part of coaching is encouraging kids to take a risk because you can’t make a shot if you don’t take it in the first place,” Lemarr said. “I want to help all kids feel comfortable in school and realize the responsibility we have as humans to be our authentic selves.
“Because it definitely carries on from us to other people.”