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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Retiring SCC teacher born with congenital amputation offers message on power of belief in students

Linda Seppa-Salisbury, a longtime instructor with Spokane Community College, will be retiring after 56 years of teaching. Forty-six of those years were at SCC.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Communications studies professor Linda Seppa-Salisbury hasn’t missed a Spokane Community College graduation in 46 years at the school. That’s because she wants her students to know she cares.

Seppa-Salisbury knows her students’ stories, and that many overcame obstacles from cultural differences to being poor.

“Watching them move onto the next big thing in their life is what we’re all about,” said Seppa-Salisbury, 76. “This is the best-kept secret in Spokane – SCC.”

Seppa-Salisbury also knows something about overcoming.

Being a teacher who encourages and sees a student beyond their classwork became ingrained in Seppa-Salisbury in first grade, when as a little girl in Seattle she’d hide her hands in her pocket. Born with a congenital amputation, her left hand wasn’t fully formed so her only finger curves, appearing like a hook.

“My teacher, Miss Ella Faye, had three things she told us all the time, ‘I love you; you are spectacular; you will do amazing things.’ When we were going to do this program and I was going to do a Scottish dance – which meant both my hands would be up in the air – I was really nervous.

“She went around the whole room to everybody and said that – eyeball to eyeball – and she got down on her knees right in front of me and took both my hands and said, ‘You are amazing exactly the way you are.’ I wanted to be a teacher from that moment on.”

This year’s SCC ceremony will be her last one, she said. She retires June 23 after 56 total years as a teacher. She’s passionate about SCC, where she’ll give her last speech at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Lair Auditorium for the Speak out! Communications Club’s conference on Multigenerational Communication. The focus will be “The Last Lecture: Life Lessons from the ‘Older’ Generation.”

In 1968, Seppa-Salisbury got her Bachelor of Arts degree in speech communication and education at the University of Washington. She also has a Master of Arts degree in speech communication and education from UW, and a Master of Arts in applied behavioral science for organizational consultation from Whitworth University.

Early as a teacher, she taught in a high school and then a middle school. During following years, she taught at various schools and universities, including UW, Eastern Washington University and Whitworth.

But once she started at SCC in 1976, that was the right place for her, she said. Seppa-Salisbury every year has tried to show she cares for students, crediting Miss Faye.

Each week for 46 years, she has brought food into her classroom, so students have nourishing snacks. She gets up at 3 a.m. to grade papers, marking suggestions and offering students “do-overs” up to three times to get a piece up to college-level work, while learning how.

“It’s extra work because you’re grading something more than once, but you’re seeing them make incredible improvements,” she said. “The students here are so amazing, so brave. Many of them face unthinkable challenges.

“When I have them do their final intercultural stories, you can’t believe some of the things they’ve been through. That’s not all our students, clearly, but it’s a good proportion of them who never expected to be in college.”

She starts naming them, including one woman who received a scholarship and has done well at SCC, coming here after growing up in a gang in California. “Now, she’s a mom of three and will graduate SCC this spring.”

Seppa-Salisbury’s two daughters, Amy and Jessi, went on to be teachers. Her husband of 37 years, Bert Salisbury, also brought two sons into the marriage. They have 13 grandchildren. He died three years ago.

“He was the love of my life,” she said. “Every talk I’ve ever given here, and I’ve done lots of them, he’d always work it out to sit in the first row with Amy, my daughter. I’d say to the students to get up, introduce yourself to somebody, have a conversation, and I’d always go over and kiss him.

“He adored me, and I adored him.”

Seppa-Salisbury has taught intercultural communication, interpersonal communication, conflict management and a business and professional communication class. For more than 30 years, she also has run her consulting business that trains organizations on how to better communicate.

Many of her students became friends over the years, and she still gets notes and updates from them. In her classes, they must put cellphones away. She makes them talk to each other. They conduct interviews to learn more, must learn each others’ names and at least three important details about their classmates.

A former student she became close to, Holly Caudill, was a quadriplegic. Seppa-Salisbury encouraged her to pursue law. She graduated from Gonzaga University’s law school and became an attorney, eventually moving to San Diego. Caudill later died around age 35 during a routine surgery.

Seppa-Salisbury also had a recent student with autism, and he only felt comfortable on stage at graduation if he could see Seppa-Salisbury stand up among faculty. Another student just this year had a congenital amputation, the first such pupil in her career.

She has also inspired young students to overcome obstacles.

A recent SCC “3rd-grade Poetry Slam” had the theme, “Be Brave,” so Seppa-Salisbury told Stevens Elementary students about another time during childhood when she had to draw courage. At age 10, a P.E. teacher told her she couldn’t climb the rope to the top of the school’s gym, which the other students all were practicing to do.

Seppa-Salisbury went home and told her dad she still wanted to try to climb the rope. That weekend, he brought her into that gym to practice for two hours. The following Monday, she got to the top.

“I had made some good progress on that weekend, so on Monday, everybody got to do it,” she said. “I went over to the rope, and I said, ‘I’d like to try.’ I started up the rope, and I absolutely knew I could do it, so I climbed clear up to the top. The gym went crazy and my friends were jumping up and down.”

Seppa-Salisbury thought her P.E. teacher would be angry. “She came over, put her arm around me and said, ‘There are going to be times in your life when somebody will tell you can’t do it, and you’ll remember this moment.’ I said that to those Stevens kids, that sometimes, someone is going to say you can’t do it. Just decide you’re going to do it anyway.”

During retirement, she plans to do some volunteering, consulting and spend more time with family.

“It’s not like I’m not going to be doing anything. I’m writing a book called ‘Teaching With Your Whole Heart: Lessons Learned from Students After 56 Years in the Classroom,’ so I’m telling students’ stories. And there is a time to leave. I have great health and I want to go do some things.”