AL.com writer Shelly Haskins does something few politicians ever do. He looks for the good in people. Here is an article he did pointing out how one teacher touched a student’s life and changed her forever. Instead of trying to get a cheap laugh at the expense of Alabama educators by declaring that our “education sucks,” Governor Bentley would be well served to remember the Karen Gautneys of this state.
Karen Gautney felt like she didn’t have many options when she was going into her senior year at Valley High School in 1979.
“My high school grades were average, things at home were stressful, and I didn’t see much promise for the future,” said Gautney, who was resigned to a job in the cotton mills or joining the military. “College was a long shot, for which I had received no encouragement, and I would have been the first in my family to do so.”
“I don’t know if (he) took a special interest in me, but it felt like he did,” she said. “For the first time, I was interested, excited, and challenged.
“He talked about government and politics in a way that made it accessible and relevant to me,” Gautney said. “I observed the art of exploring a topic from multiple perspectives, and with an open mind.”
Rather than tell her how to think, as adults tend to do, that teacher drew out her opinions and didn’t judge her for them.
It was the year of the Iranian hostage crisis and Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter for the presidency.
A local radio station asked each local high school to send one student to take part in an hour-long live broadcast and talk about how they felt about the hostage crisis and the changing American political landscape. That teacher, though expected to pick the school’s valedictorian, picked Gautney.
“I feared I wasn’t smart enough to represent our school, which I confessed to him. I will never forget his answer: ‘You are as smart as anyone in this school. Maybe smarter. I’m not sure yet.’,” she said. “Talk about motivation! I was nervous throughout the project, but I held my own with the brainy kids from the other schools. That is when I felt smart for the first time, and I knew I wanted to go to college.”
Gautney did go to college, first to community college while working in a cotton mill, then to Troy University, where she graduate Summa Cum Laude in criminal justice.
She became a special agent for the Naval Criminal Investigation Service and traveled the country and the world, with assignments in Washington, D.C., Cuba, Italy, Germany, France, Scotland and Wales and numerous sites on the eastern seaboard.
The agency made her a firearms and tactical instructor, hostage negotiator and crime scene photographer, and she investigated homicide and child sexual abuse cases. After earning her master’s in counseling and family therapy from the University of Rhode Island, Gautney became deputy executive director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Then she earned a master’s in criminal offender rehabilitation from the University of Cincinnati, and is now a consultant to the Vermont Department of Corrections. She also has dabbled in politics and public policy, running unsuccessfully for the Virginia House of Delegates, and serving as chair of the Alexandria (Va.) Human Rights Commission.
Not bad for a someone who never thought she’d get past the cotton mills.
Thirty-seven years later, Gautney sought out and found her former teacher to tell him just how much his confidence in her affected her life.
“I still think of him often. I deliberately channel the lessons he taught me about being curious, seeking to understand others, and to lift others up when you can. For me, he was THAT teacher who put my life on course,” Gautney said.
The teacher, like most of the great ones, didn’t want the story to be about him, but about his student, so he asked that his name not be used. “All I did was flip the switch,” he said.
Alabama’s education system is much disparaged, but Gautney’s story proves that a system is made up of individuals, and great teachers are in just about every school, “flipping the switch” in students who want to take advantage of their opportunities.