AIKEN - Pamela Simpson got her first classroom assignment when astronauts first stepped on the moon.
And she's been doing some high-stepping herself since Monday, when her principal told her she has a one in five chance of becoming South Carolina's top teacher. She couldn't tell anyone until Tuesday, when it became official that she had been chosen as one of the five finalists for state Teacher of the Year.
"Anytime you're chosen to ... represent all the fine teachers there are in South Carolina, you should feel humble and honored," Dr. Simpson said after the short gag order was lifted.
"Learning ... requires the best efforts of students, parents, caring, competent teachers and the community. I am fortunate to teach in an environment where all four elements converge," she said.
A selection committee will interview the finalists March 12, and Aiken County will know for sure whether its Teacher of the Year has become South Carolina's on April 7 at a banquet to honor the five. The crown also comes with $25,000 and BMW Z3 Roadster to tool around in for a year. Since 1960, Aiken County has had three state teachers of the year: Angela Burkhalter, Sharon Rankin and Elizabeth Godfrey.
Dr. Simpson has been an educator since 1969, but until four months ago she had never been anyone's teacher of the year, except for the occasional child who dearly loved her. If not for her brother, she might have never been a teacher, she said.
The failing grades scrawled in bold letters across every page of her brother's workbooks sealed Pamela Traylor's decision about what to do with the rest of her life - she just didn't know it yet. She was just 8 then, 18 months older than her brother Dick, when their mother found his yellowed schoolbooks in a playroom window seat. Now, as Aiken County's most recent Teacher of the Year, she can still see the puzzled look on her mother's face as she thumbed frantically through the pages. On nearly every one, there was a U for unsatisfactory.
"Why didn't you let us know there was a problem?" Mrs. Traylor asked Dick's second-grade teacher at Gallagher Elementary School. "Why did he make S's on his report card and pass third grade when he made U's on his work?"
Pamela Traylor tells that story 43 years later as Dr. Pamela Simpson - grown up, married and determined not to do to other children what that teacher did to her brother. And young Dick - who, according to his teacher, was a "nonreader, but such a nice boy, I just couldn't bear to get him a U" - is now a surgeon and heads the burn unit in the siblings' hometown of Huntington, W.Va.
"One of the most rewarding things for anybody is to be recognized for doing your job well," Dr. Simpson said.
She has taught mostly technology and gifted and talented pupils for four years at Chukker Creek Elementary, the same school from which last year's local Teacher of the Year came. Dr. Simpson's predecessor was a finalist at the state level, too.
People who praise Dr. Simpson's gift for teaching often are surprised to hear that she almost chose a different career. She was obsessed with books, writing and reading. And rainy days were spent "playing librarian," the profession her aunt had chosen in real life.
She said she changed her mind gradually. And it often turned back to her brother and his struggles with what came easily to her. By the time she reached college, she said, she knew what direction her life would take.
Principal Christine Sanders says she's glad Dr. Simpson's path led her to the classroom. Even though the pupils she teaches are considered smart, "she makes certain that her influence reaches the average student and the below-average student because she is genuinely concerned about every child," Dr. Sanders said.
"That is the highest compliment you can pay to a professional," she said. "And Pam truly is a professional."
Other finalists for Teacher of the Year are: