Both of Statesboro attorney Joy Sawyer’s daughters were Portal’s top graduate, Holly in 2017, and this year, Heidi. Holly remained local to pursue a degree at Georgia Southern University, and Heidi will head to Mount Berry in the fall to attend Berry College. She plans to major in biology and seek either a pre-medical or pre-pharmacy track.
“I’ve always been interested in how living things work and how the world is made up,” Heidi said. “My 10th grade biology teacher, Ms. Flowers, who is now at Statesboro High School, and Dr. Tom Marshall, my Ag teacher were the most influential to me in developing this interest.”
Sawyer never pictured herself taking agriculture classes or liking plants, but she was willing to try. She began a Career Technical & Agricultural Education career pathway of elective nursery landscape courses, and it opened the door to new leadership opportunities she never imagined and developed a passion for horticulture.
“Dr. Marshall was the most influential teacher I ever had. I wasn’t sure about taking an agriculture class, but I fell in love with it.”
Sawyer was a member of Portal’s FFA Nursery Landscape Team, advised by Marshall, which won state and placed seventh in the nation in 2018. They were among 42 competing state champion teams from across the United States and Puerto Rico. This all-female team has now produced two valedictorians — Amonica Kirkland (2018) and Sawyer and two salutatorians Cayla Morris (2018) and Caree McGahee (2019).
“The four of us just fell together by chance,” Sawyer said. “We didn’t know anything, and we’d never been on a nursery landscape team before. We pushed and inspired each other in FFA and everything.”
“Part of the joy of teaching is to watch students like Heidi stay focused on their educational and academic goals and help them along the way,” said Marshall, a master gardener and veteran Ag educator, who will retire this year after more than 30 years of inspiring children. “Heidi is definitely one of the smartest and hardest-working students I have ever taught.”
Sawyer laughingly admitted that she and her four former team mates created a group chat to stay in touch. Sawyer, the youngest of the four is the last to graduate.
“We send each other texts and pictures all the time about plants and landscaping that we see and like,” she said.
Sawyer’s passion for living things can also be seen in her artwork. She is an accomplished artist using watercolors to create vibrant beach and landscape scenes. One of her paintings won first place in the Kiwanis Art Competition that’s part of the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair.
“Art class was a big part of my high school years. It was a place where I could go to forget about everything and express myself. It was the most peaceful part of my day,” she said.
“I became Heidi's art teacher when she was in first grade at Portal Elementary,” said Deena Scarborough, who for a time served as the visual arts teacher for all pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students in Portal. “Heidi is a naturally gifted artist, and I hope she will continue using her creativity in the future.”
Most of the members of Sawyer’s 59-member graduating class have been together since pre-kindergarten. She noted that they pushed each other to do well, and that of the top 10 graduates there was usually a mere point or less difference in their overall grades.
“I didn’t know that I would be valedictorian,” Sawyer said. “It could have been any of us. We’ve had a friendly, close competition through the years.”
While at Portal Middle High School, Sawyer served as Beta Club secretary, a member of the cheer team, FFA member, and literary team. She was selected as a Statesboro Exchange Club Student of the Month scholar, and she won first place at region literary. She looked forward to advancing to state competition, but unfortunately the Georgia High School Association cancelled all athletic and literary events due to the coronavirus. Sawyer has a positive outlook about missing some experiences of her senior year due to school closures.
“There are no words to sum up this situation. It feels surreal. You just accept it. Our graduation is still special to us though. We earned it.”
She most looks forward to being part of Berry College’s Bonner Program. A leadership program that encourages community service, she was selected through a competitive application and interview process.
“Heidi always brings a high level of enthusiasm to the classroom,” said Shannon Hattaway, Portal’s Spanish teacher and recently-selected Teacher of the Year for the school. “She is always eager to learn and is very focused.”