AIKEN - Karey Santos always was certain what she wanted to do with her life - it just wasn't the same thing from one day to the next.
Teaching wasn't on the list, she recalled with a touch of irony when she was named one of the nation's best teachers of math and science. She flew to Washington earlier this month to accept a presidential citation for doing her job so well. She passes on to the children in her classes all the things she herself loved at their age and beyond.
Mrs. Santos never became the paleontologist she wanted to be - for awhile. Or the the marine biologist she dreamed of being - for awhile.
But when her youngsters at Millbrook Elementary School dig for fossils in the sand or scour the wetlands for aquatic life, they are sharing their teacher's long-held passions. And, if they look closely, they can see Mrs. Santos' eyes shine with the same excitement she had when she was young.
On the plane ride to Washington, and during the days she was getting ready to go, Mrs. Santos says, she thought of the unexpected turn her life had taken. And, she thought of the biology teacher who probably set that course for her in a Florida high school, not far from the beach.
Mrs. Santos remembers that teacher only as Ms. Barrett. Never mind her first name, says Mrs. Santos, now grown and living far from the Florida coast. "What counts is that she made me say, `Wow, this is what I want to do with my life."'
The only child of a beautician and a pipe fitter, Mrs. Santos was fascinated by nature and especially loved looking for fossils and bones. But Saturday excursions to the estuaries with Ms. Barrett fueled a passion for things of the sea, and Mrs. Santos "knew for sure" that she'd someday be a marine biologist.
What she didn't realize was that Mrs. Barrett also was teaching her how to teach.
All the varied career plans went on the back burner when Mrs. Santos married young, dropped out of college and had children. When her husband took a job at the Savannah River Site, she became a stay-at-home mom.
Mrs. Santos calls herself a late bloomer to the classroom. On the same day her son started kindergarten, she went back to college at the urging of friends who said she ought to teach other children besides her own. Before then, she hadn't given it much thought, she said. Teaching her dolls the ABC's and 1-2-3's as a child was as far as it went.
"Lord knows, I never meant to make a retirement program out of this," she said. But for every good reason to get out, there's an even better one to stay.
Her most recent career choice didn't look promising 12 years ago. It was her first day as a teacher at Millbrook Elementary. But Mrs. Santos didn't see any pupils that day or the four days that came after. The rookie teacher didn't know that the first week is always a whirlwind of meetings and paperwork, not pupils.
"I cried all the way home," Mrs. Santos said. "All I could do was grip the steering wheel until my knuckles were white and think, `My God. What have I done?"'
Parent Juanita Bell says she is glad Mrs. Santos stuck around. She taught all three of Mrs. Bell's children, and they loved her, especially Kenny, now a junior at South Aiken High.
He was a learning disabled student who was a social misfit. But not in Mrs. Santos' class, where, his mother says, he "soared." So did his grades - A's and B's in both math and science. He was even elected a Student Council representative.
"She made science come alive for him," Mrs. Bell said.
Now Kenny wants to study forestry at Clemson University - Mrs. Santos got him turned on to the bug thing.
The same happened for Kristina, who thought "bug collections were fun stuff, not homework," Mrs. Bell said of her youngest daughter. Now a freshman in college, she still talks about the things she did in fifth grade.
And the oldest of the three, Tequila still speaks with wonder of her discovery that math was more than numbers and graphs. Her class held a road race with vehicles they made from recycled materials and powered with balloons. Math was involved in all the measurements and construction, but they hardly noticed, and Tequila placed third in the race, Mrs. Bell said.
"I'm proud Karey taught my children," she said. "I couldn't have asked for anyone better."
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.
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