When Nigel Washington started sixth grade at Langston Chapel Middle School, he was not living up to his potential in math. Math teacher Joni Chavers pushed him to do better, and he responded by not only improving in math but also writing a heartfelt essay about her a year later.
During a Wednesday morning assembly packed with several hundred schoolmates in the LCMS gym, Bulloch County Schools and Sea Island Bank officials surprised Washington and Chavers with the countywide prizes in the American Education Week essay contest, "What My Teacher Means to Me," sponsored by the bank.
"How do you know when a teacher is no longer just a teacher, but somehow, in their time spent with you, has earned a place as someone who shapes the way you think, act and see the world around you," Washington, now 13 and in seventh grade, wrote in his essay.
The contest committee chose it from 403 essays written by students in public and private schools, countywide, in grades six through eight.
"Mrs. Joni Chavers, my sixth-grade math teacher, was much more than an instructor; she was a primary confidante, a friend and a mentor. She was a patient, encouraging and compassionate soul, who in mere days, unseated my former personal perception of mathematics," Washington wrote.
Chavers, also Langston Chapel Middle School's 2014-15 Teacher of the Year, has taught sixth-grade math there nine years, her entire career so far. She serves as a supervisor for Georgia Southern University students doing practice teaching and tutors children in math and language arts as a volunteer at her church.
After graduating from Southeast Bulloch High School, Chavers studied at Georgia Southern for her bachelor's degree and with Walden University for her master's degree. She now also holds a specialist degree from Nova Southeastern University.
"I'm really surprised, but it's an honor to be recognized by one of my students, because you don't realize who you're touching until they actually tell you," she said in an interview.
Chavers called Washington "a very sweet, learnable student" but said they "didn't get along" at first because he wasn't doing math to his potential.
"So I pushed Nigel as hard as I could, because I knew he had it in him," Chavers said, "and I always got onto him every day: 'Nigel, you've got to do better. You can do better, Nigel, because you're so much smarter than what you're giving me,' and so at the end, he came around. ... And I was so proud."
It was an advanced math class, and Washington acknowledges he had trouble at first.
"I was struggling, and she just helped me pull through it," he told reporters. "She was just always patient, and if I didn't understand the topic, she would revisit it long enough for me to grasp it firmly, and I'm really grateful for that."
He did well in the class and made "exceeds" scores in all subjects on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
Washington is being raised by his great-grandfather, Joseph Jackson, and his wife, Deborah Jackson. He has lived with the Jacksons since he was 2 months old.
The Jacksons and Washington's great-aunt, Ahdena Johnson, who attended the ceremony as part of the surprise, described him as constantly reading and writing in his spare time but said they were surprised by the recognition he was getting.
"We're surprised and very proud," said Mrs. Jackson.
"Yes, she is, and I am, too," said Mr. Jackson, "so proud."
By the time he was 13, Joseph Jackson, a Korean War veteran who is now 82, was working to help support his family. He completed school only as far as the seventh grade, in contrast to his great-grandson's prospects for education.
"When I was his size, I was working at a sawmill," Jackson said.
Johnson, Washington's great-aunt, had described him as "a future president" in a Facebook post.
Besides favorite adventure novels such as Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series and "The Kane Chronicles," the seventh-grader said he enjoys reading nonfiction. He has read biographies of historic leaders, including presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and John Quincy Adams.
He said he does not know exactly what career he will pursue but that it will involve writing.
Several representatives of Sea Island Bank attended the assembly, and bank President Darron Burnette and Senior Vice President Kim Brannen took part in the presentation.
Several months ago, Brannen and friends at the bank talked about doing something new and significant to salute teachers.
So, they issued an invitation for students to write about their favorite teachers. The only prize publicized for the contest was $250 for the winning teacher, with the idea that this would be spent on classroom needs.
No prize for the student essayists was announced so that students would be motivated by a desire to recognize teachers, Brannen said, and the organizers had no idea what response to expect.
"We got over 400 essays from students who talked about how great their teachers are and how they inspire them every day," she told the assembled LCMS students and faculty. "We were blown away."
Brannen sat down one night intending to start reading a few of the essays, but, she said, she did not stop until she had read all 403.
"I was deeply touched," she said. "You students are incredible, and not only are you incredible, you told the story of teachers that are incredible every day."
Adding to Wednesday's surprises, the bank put up previously unannounced awards for the winning student. Washington received a new Chromebook laptop, still in the box, plus a scholarship to a weeklong creative writing workshop at the Averitt Center for the Arts.
Chavers is contributing her $250 award to an effort by the LCMS math department to buy tablets for students who do not have home Internet access to take home and use for additional math practice.
"Our goal is to get more, and that's going to be a start, to help some of our students in the classroom," she said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.