MYRTLE BEACH — On the map, moving from Pittsburgh to Myrtle Beach represents just 612 miles, a fairly simple 10-hour car ride.
For Cyra Cottrell, it might as well have been a different galaxy.
As a 12-year-old, being the new kid in middle school was daunting.
New friends. New classes. New culture.
What she didn’t expect to land was a “school mom.”
Cyra was a “big, big science geek,” so Susan Chandler King’s 7th grade science class at St. James Middle School wasn’t something to fear, it was something to embrace, providing a mental comfort during a time of life chaos.
And that embrace never stopped — a lifelong friendship with a passionate teacher, an honorary member of the King family and a springboard to a current career as a doctor in Atlanta.
Susan Chandler King
Mrs. King cared, not just about Cyra, but about the thousands of students that made their way through her classes during a 24-year run at St. James, one that ended in early January after she passed away due to complications with liver failure.
“I had no friends. You start all over again, so she really was my first friend she looked out for me,” Cyra said, who would eventually work for Mrs. King’s husband, Harvey, during high school.
“She really saw something special in me and made sure I had every opportunity to get to get to where I wanted to go.”
That was Mrs. King, she saw what students couldn’t — their potential.
And her own children weren’t exempt from that, particularly her oldest, Chandler, a highly accomplished student at the University of South Carolina, where he entered as a sophomore due to his efforts at St. James High School.
“Your education can never be taken away,” she would tell Chandler.
“It wasn’t even a question that her three boys would go to college,” said Donna Parker, her best friend and longtime colleague at St. James Middle School.
Walker and Parker, Chandler’s kid brothers, are destined to follow in a similar direction, even if their paths are a bit different.
Mrs. King’s passion for education started in her home state of West Virginia, but intensified at Marshall University, where she received a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, and a Masters Degree in Special Education.
Susan Chandler King, left, and her husband, Harvey. (Courtesy photo)
In 1997, she found her way to Myrtle Beach, teaching special education at St. James Middle School with an eye on becoming a kindergarten teacher. After a handful of years, she shifted to being an English teacher, still believing she was destined to teach kindergarten.
But a shift to 7th grade science erased that quest — finding a permanent home teaching children about a plethora of topics, including the heart.
“She would talk about each part of the heart and what sound they made. It was so cool, I knew I would have to become a doctor,” Cyra said. “She was the first one to spark that my interest in the human body. I’m fascinated to this day.”
That 7th grade classroom was home to the “King Crew,” led by Chandler and a handful of his friends. Instead of spending lunch hours among the rest of the student body, the group would hang out with Mrs. King.
Chandler isn’t shy about the woman he affectionately calls “momma” — she was his best friend.
He would call her three times a day, admitting that the first call was more about his needs, paying little attention to what was happening in her day.
“I always asked her, ‘What’s for dinner?’ She never responded to that,” Chandler recalled.
Mrs. King was an organizer’s organizer, as both Donna and Chandler flip through her calendar that had items scheduled as far out as the summer.
She liked structure, something that Donna would adapt to.
Every morning, Mrs. King would call her best friend at 7:20 a.m., allowing “Thelma and Louise,” as Chandler calls them, to conspire about the day ahead.
It was a 10-minute pep talk each day — a needed emotional boost as teaching has become more and more regimented.
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“We could talk for hours,” Donna said, relaying that they were known on campus as “Frick and Frack” due to their outspoken nature.
“She taught me how to use my voice.”
Susan Chandler King kept a series of posters in her 7th grade classroom at St. James Middle School that put a spotlight on every student she had each year.
Mrs. King ruled her roost through a constant dose of reality, albeit sticking up for children at school or teaching her children how to function normally.
There was no reason to be embarrassed in Mrs. King’s world and that included Chandler, who was sent to the grocery store to pick up items most men are uncomfortable with.
“She told me, ‘You’ll have to do this for your wife one day, you might as well start now,’” Chandler said.
Donna already sees a catch in Chandler.
“Chandler is so well-prepared when he finds the right woman one day. He will look for his momma in that woman,” Donna said.
He will also take away her indelible spirit, one that saw her teach a class from her bed the day before she passed away.
Diagnosed with liver failure around Thanksgiving, Mrs. King fought hard by going to the doctor despite the obstacles during a global pandemic. And despite the wear and tear, she wanted to continue to teach, to make an impact.
Her two youngest sons would remind her when her Google Classroom times were, and she’d log on and give what she could.
“Giving back is who she was, all the way to the end,” Donna said.
Chandler and his brothers have also learned how to enjoy life from their parents, with Mrs. King’s husband, Harvey, a “stoic, Southern man that will do anything in the world for you,” according to Cyra.
With the family big fans of southern barbecue, a trip aboard the Disney Dream, one of Disney Cruise Line’s large ships, landed them in the Bahamas.
Harvey wanted to get off the ship to check out the local BBQ — but Mrs. King wasn’t having it.
She was enamored with the all-you-can-eat, hand-size shrimp onboard the ship’s “Cabanas” restaurant.
It was the last big vacation that the Kings took together.
Susan Chandler King taught at St. James Middle School for 24 years.
Disney represented the “timeless” nature of family, with trips to DisneyWorld still fresh in Chandler’s mind.
“We loved it. There was something for all of us, and that’s what momma always wanted. She wanted us to create memories,” Chandler said.
Her extended family at school were under the same guidelines — every student was to be championed, to be remembered, to feel special.
At the end of every school year, she would make posters with every student’s picture on them, and then label them across the bottom with the class graduating year.
Students would return to Mrs. King’s classrooms long after they exited, just to get a look at the posters, to take a trip down memory lane and to offer Mrs. King love and appreciation.
For Cyra, it was the least she could do.
“My life could have went a different way, but she made sure it went the right way.”
Editor’s note: An educational fund for King’s three sons has been established through GoFundMe, with aspirations to make it a scholarship fund for students in the community. You can find out more by visiting gofundme.com/f/the-susan-chandler-king-education-fund.
This content was originally published here.