Atholton High School science teacher Bonnie Luepkes had never won anything before. So when her name was called out during a faux faculty meeting yesterday in the school's cafeteria, she immediately burst into tears - even though she couldn't hear what she'd won over the din coming from the kitchen.
"I just knew I'd won something," she said later, wiping her eyes.
Here's what she missed:
"We've brought you here under false pretenses," began Glenna Nyanjom, the school's PTA president. She was addressing the dozens of instructors who had heeded a call over the loudspeaker 15 minutes earlier to go to a meeting.
"We really don't have a faculty meeting. Instead, what we have is really, really great news."
Luepkes, a 31-year Howard County teacher, had won the Educator of the Year award from the Maryland PTA.
The crowd stood and applauded, and Nyanjom and Principal Connie Lewis beckoned Luepkes forward to hand her flowers - at which time the soft-spoken teacher whispered, "What is it again?"
When she found out, the tears came harder.
"I'm just overwhelmed," she said afterward, calling the award a validation of her many years of teaching because "someone other than myself has recognized the effort I put into it."
The statement might have surprised most people there because they had been noticing her achievements for years.
They used words like "phenomenal," "amazing," "incredible" and "excellent" to describe her skills. They said she was uncompromising in her standards, dedicated to the staff and students, an inspiration.
"She's the epitome of a teacher," Lewis said. "I wish I could clone her."
Luepkes, 52, is a 1969 graduate of Atholton, having moved to Highland in sixth grade from Anne Arundel County. It was her biology teacher - Mr. Vosnick, she remembers - who inspired her to teach.
"I wanted to be like him," she said.
She earned a master's degree in biology - with a concentration in "invertebrate zoology," which she throws out as if everyone knows the term - and came right back to Howard.
She taught first at the now-closed Waterloo Middle School from 1973 to 1976 and then at Owen Brown Middle before returning to Atholton in fall 1978.
"And I've been here ever since," she added - in the same classroom. "It's my home. I've spent more than half my life here."
Her students have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, veterinarians and physical therapists. She knows because they keep in touch.
"She's more than just a teacher," said instructional assistant Carolyn Martin, wiping away her tears. "She's a motherly figure."
Martin, who graduated from Atholton in 1984, was a former student of Luepkes' and sent her an anonymous bouquet of thank you flowers when she, too, joined the staff.
"She told me, `You've got to have confidence in yourself, you've got to believe in yourself,'" Martin said - advice that helped the then-teen get through a tough time of testing in her final high school years. "She'll never know the teacher she was to me."
Luepkes has taught at least five of Atholton's faculty members, including a vice principal. And another former student - who is now a forensic science investigator - addressed one of her classes yesterday morning.
"It's come full circle," said Luepkes, who had considered retiring this year but decided to stay to make sure the forensic science class she piloted last year was strong enough to stand without her.
"It's such an exciting class. It ties in with CSI," a top-rate television series on CBS that uses science to solve crimes, said PTA representative Sue Righter. The class is now available in six county high schools.
Luepkes - who also teaches two anatomy and physiology classes, along with Advanced Placement biology - said she developed the interest in forensics while watching Forensics Files on Court TV.
"When I learned you could determine the time of death by the types of maggots [on a body], I became more interested in forensics," said Luepkes, who had written a paper in college about a particular type of fly.
But her world isn't made up only of science. Luepkes likes to crochet and garden, and last night, in lieu of celebration, she was thinking about catching a soccer game if rain didn't cancel it.
She has also served on many committees at the school, kept score at basketball games, sold tickets to sporting events and sponsored groups, including cheerleaders and the Asian Student Union - all while managing to miss only two home football games in the past 20 years.
"She's incredible. She's amazing," gushed band director Lee Stevens. "I've known her since 1976 in middle school, and she's better than ever."