Sandy Hansen’s given name is Sandra, a name she says means “protector and beneficiary of mankind and the world.” She takes the responsibility associated with her name seriously, saying, “I always wanted to be a healer.”
As a child, Sandy often struggled in school because of some learning problems, seeing some letters upside down and finding it difficult to differentiate some numbers. Though she learned to compensate for her challenges and succeed academically, her memories of teachers and classrooms are not happy. When twists of fate delivered her to graduate, then post-graduate programs in special education, Sandy recalled her own experiences and vowed “to be the most caring and compassionate teacher ever.”
Sandy’s family moved to Napa in 1948 when she was only months old, and once she completed her studies in the San Francisco Bay Area, she returned to the community. She worked first in a private school, then in a juvenile hall, and then one fateful day she was recruited to New Vintage High School in the Napa Valley as a special education teacher.
These positions all challenged Sandy in different ways, but she says, “My inspiration comes from the belief that all of us, regardless of ability, have a purpose that needs to be realized. That is something I have been able to do…to see the good in people and their hidden abilities and help them find their ‘thing.’”
Sandy’s dedication to her students meant that she often was one of their strongest and most vocal advocates. For example, the Department of Education once decreed that all students— even the most severely handicapped—be tested in general education subjects, which, Sandy says, “for the most part, had little or no rela- tion to what we were teaching. The test was so inappropriate that one of my students actually ate it rather than try to attempt the impossible. I took the chewed up mess, along with a detailed critique that included ways to make it work, and sent it to the California State Department of Education.” The following year, Sandy was invited to serve on the committee responsible for rewriting the testing policy.
As much as Sandy’s love and understanding influenced her students, she says, “My students influenced me. Every student, regardless of the severity of disability, was able to learn some aspect of compassion. I would remain in the classroom every day until I could honestly say, ‘It is good to be me because today my students taught me…’”
Sandy’s compassion extends beyond her students, especially to animals. She has trans- formed her yard has into a wildlife sanctuary. Often, Sandy was able to creatively weave together her two passions—animals and her students—“because the animals allowed for safe expression of words and feelings,” she says. She once had a student who was aggressive, difficult to reach, and often absent from class. One day, a feral cat that Sandy fed on the school’s campus ran into the classroom and hid in the closet. Sandy sensed an opportunity. “I asked the boy if he was brave and if he liked cats,” Sandy says. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ I told him I had a job for him: ‘You must tame a wild cat. I will show you how so that you and the cat are safe. I don’t want you to do any class work, especially reading because I know you don’t like that stuff. You need to come to class every day because that cat is counting on you for all its needs. It will be your job.’ And so, he did. He named the cat Lucky.”
Sandy’s belief in the goodness and value of every sentient being has been a gift to the lives she has touched. “At the beginning of every school year, at least one parent would say, ‘Fix my child,’” she laments. “I would reply that I couldn’t ‘fix’ her because she wasn’t broken. I can help you see the beauty in her. I can help the flower that is your child unfold.”