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When she asked a neighbor about her soon-to-be English teacher, Allie Bolen was told to expect a strict “Victorian woman” who expected students to practically wear a petticoat to class.

Now at age 20, Bolen is the reason why this same teacher Amy Gibson of Huntingtown High School was one of 10 recipients of the 2012 John F. Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards.

Bryantown resident Gibson explained that the awards were created in honor of Sondheim’s 80th birthday and each of the 10 recipients won $10,000, which Gibson already received.

She was the only recipient of the award from Maryland this year.

Bolen, who is now studying nursing at College of Southern Maryland, nominated Gibson after Huntingtown High School Principal Rick Weber told one of her friends about the award.

Bolen submitted a 500-word essay about Gibson’s “Victorian woman” reputation and how her own opinion changed.

Bolen said this happened one day in class when she calmed down a fellow classmate who was having a panic attack and Gibson thanked her after class, calling her “angelic.”

“I felt embarrassed and undeserving of the compliment so I’ve just wanted to live up to what Ms. Gibson thinks of me,” said Bolen, who wrote in her essay that after the experience Gibson’s words inspired her to become “an assertive adult” with friends from multiple social circles.

Gibson said she didn’t even know that Bolen had nominated her until the Kennedy Center contacted her about being a finalist and asked for a 50 word statement, an updated resume and a picture.

Gibson has taught for 37 years and has been at Huntingtown High School since it opened eight years ago.

She currently teaches freshman honors English and advanced placement literature and is an advanced placement SAT learning specialist.

“I love that it was a student who [nominated me] and I love my principal he’s a wonderful man,” Gibson said. “I think as a school we have very high expectations. I tell students ‘if you do the work, I guarantee you an A or a B.’

“ ... It’s a very stimulating place to work. We see students as puzzles and it’s engaging to see what each student needs to learn,” Gibson said.

She said the $10,000 check came with “no strings” but was coy as to how she’s using it.

“I’m saving it for something very special,” Gibson said. “Something like this is very lovely, especially now.”

This is not the first time Gibson has been recognized.

She was the Calvert County Teacher of the Year in 2004 and has also received honors from the College Board, the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism and Yale University.

In addition to her work with Calvert County Public Schools, Gibson has also taught at Catholic schools in Baltimore and in St. Mary’s County.

Throughout her teaching career, Gibson said “staying enthusiastic” about her field is even more important than mastering it in the first place.

“That’s the key element to being an effective teacher. ... It’s really hard to be a young person today and they’re deserving of my enthusiasm and my support,” she said.

Though she has not met the other nine awardees, Gibson said by reading their statements, she could tell they all had a lot in common.

“Everyone said they loved their job and I feel that way, too. ... I think teachers are in a unique position to change the world,” she said.

Bolen, who still regularily gets together with Gibson for lunch and tea, said she was thrilled for her former teacher.

“It’s almost surreal,” she said.

“Teachers define us,” Sondheim said in a press release from the Kennedy Center. “In our early years, when we are still being formed, they often see in us more than we see in ourselves, more even than our families see and, as a result, help us to evolve into what we ultimately become. Good teachers are touchstones to paths of achieving more than we might have otherwise accomplished, in directions we might not have gone.”

lbuck@somdnews.com