Essayist has a surprise for mom

Phelps Luck pupil's description of her mother, ` my hero,' helps her win Carson prize


To qualify for a $1,000 Carson Scholar prize, Gloria O'Koth, a fifth-grader at Phelps Luck Elementary School had to have a grade point average of at least 3.75, had to be involved in her community and had to write an essay about a hero in her life.

Her teacher, Toni Sommerville, thought she would choose a sports figure or celebrity. Her mother, Atieno Anyango, suggested she write about Nelson Mandela or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But Gloria instead chose to write about her mother. And her essay helped her win the scholarship.

"My hero is my mother," she wrote. "My mother helps build a foundation to make dreams possible for her children. She is the voice always telling us to believe in ourselves, to never give up, and to stand up for what is right."

In the essay, Gloria, 11, describes how her family moved from Kenya to Maryland.

She discusses her mother's emphasis on education, noting that her mother takes her to the library every week and "makes sure my sister and I do our homework, and is available to help us if we need it."

She also limits television-watching to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays because "she believes that television does not teach a person as well as books."

When her mother set that rule, Gloria said, "at first I didn't really think I would like it." But then she acknowledged that it had the intended effect: "I started reading a lot," she said.

Anyango said she had no idea that she was the focus of her daughter's essay. "I was telling her, `Gloria, you're supposed to be writing this thing. If you need my help, you can let me know. But I really don't know who you are writing about,' " she recalled.

"She told me, `Mom, I'll show you the draft,' but she never showed me the draft. I was shocked. I knew she was going to write something, but I had no idea who she was writing about. I didn't realize it until she told me it was me."

Of course, Gloria's mother was thrilled. "I felt so good when I read it," she said. "It feels good when your child tells you that."

Anyango was a journalist in Kenya and had two daughters there, Gloria and her younger sister, Ruby. Their father died when Gloria was 4, Anyango said.

In 2002, Anyango left her children with a relative and came to the United States to earn a master's degree from the University of Maryland.

A year and a half later, Gloria and Ruby joined their mother. Gloria said she remembered that it was snowing on the drive back from the airport when she arrived in the United States. It was the first time she had seen snow.

Anyango met and married an American, Irving Johnson. The sisters now have a brother, Imani, who was born in September. Gloria notes in her essay that her mother was unable to attend back-to-school night because of Imani, but "she made sure she called our teachers to set up conferences to meet them and learn about our school year."

The Carson Scholar Fund, established in 1994 by Ben Carson, the well-known pediatric neurosurgeon, has awarded prizes to more than 1,700 students in grades four through 11 in the District of Columbia, Maryland and 10 other states.

Each school can nominate one to three children. Volunteers select the winners based on an essay and on a recommendation written by an educator, said Marty Eaton, program director for the fund.

This year, 500 students are receiving the college scholarship money, Eaton said. Of those, 330 are from Maryland and 16 are from Howard County. An award ceremony is scheduled for April 23 at Martin's West in Baltimore County.

Sommerville said she thought of Gloria when considering a student to nominate.

"We have a lot of really bright kids, but it was the commitment to the community part that really made her stand out in my mind," Sommerville said.

In the classroom, Gloria is in charge of organizing the "Wednesday folders," making sure that material from the school goes home with each child, Sommerville said. She often brings in library books that are related to topics under discussion in the classroom.

And, as she details in her essay, Gloria helped feed the homeless and distribute gifts with her church, St. John's Baptist. "At first, I didn't really want to go," Gloria said. "But I had a lot of fun once I went."

Anyango said the essay made her realize that everything she does is being noticed by her children. "That made me realize that all the small things you do and you don't think your kids are watching you, they are watching you," she said. "Whatever you do, make sure you are doing it right."


Sixteen students from Howard County were recently named $1,000 Carson Scholar prize winners. They are:

Michael Atlas, 11th grade, Glenelg High; Elizabeth Carpenter, seventh grade, Cradlerock School; Madeline Jones, fifth grade, Clemens Crossing Elementary; Daniel Kim, fifth grade, Forest Ridge Elementary; Joseph Kolodrubetz, eighth grade, St. Louis Catholic School; Kristin Lawson, 10th grade, Oakland Mills High; Evan Leonard, fifth grade, Talbott Springs Elementary; Akilah Limes, fifth grade, Jeffers Hill Elementary; Emily Maginnis, fifth grade, Bellows Spring Elementary; Kimberly Murdaugh, 11th grade, Hammond High; Pourandokht Nourbakhsh, eighth grade, Lime Kiln Middle; Gloria O'Koth, fifth grade, Phelps Luck Elementary; Molly O'Neil, sixth grade, Patuxent Valley Middle; Joshua Waldman, fourth grade, Triadelphia Ridge Elementary; Maxwell Weinberg, seventh grade, Cradlerock School; Carissa Zukowski, fifth grade, Clarksville Elementary.

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