Paul Greenberg

I have no idea what kind of job Andrea McKenna does as a teacher at her middle school in Springdale, Ark.

I do know she's just been picked as the only teacher in the state of Arkansas to receive a prized Milken Educator Award this year.

The award includes a cash stipend ($25,000) and is a big deal in American education, which needs all the attention it can get.

I also know that Ms. McKenna must be a great teacher if she conducts her classes as eloquently and from-the-heart as she spoke when presented with about the highest honor an American teacher can receive.

It was quite an occasion at -- and for -- the J.O. Kelly Middle School when the surprise announcement was made. And I mean surprise. You could tell from her reaction. And everybody else's.

The only thing the kids and teachers knew was that they were to attend a school assembly that morning to hear from some bigwigs -- like the governor and the state's commissioner of education. Supposedly in observance of the Month of the Young Adolescent. (Everybody and everything's got a month these days.)

v Then, out of the blue, the president of the National Institute for Excellence in Education headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., got up and explained why he was there. It seems a man named Lowell Milkin with a family foundation thought the best educators in the country deserved recognition. Much the way actors get Oscars and Olympic athletes win gold medals.

And so Mr. Milken established an institute to present the Milken Awards to the best teachers in the country. They're chosen after an extensive search and then an exhaustive winnowing process. Here in Arkansas, there were 16 nominations for the honor this year. The field was then narrowed to five finalists, and the people at the Milken Foundation settled on just one winner:

Andrea Morales McKenna.

When her name was announced, the school assembly erupted in cheers and tears for one of its own. No one seemed more stunned and tearful than the lady who teaches English as a second language to sixth and seventh graders at J.O. Kelly.

If courage is grace under pressure, sincerity may be grace when you're suddenly hauled up before an assembly of your friends, fellow teachers, the press, leading public officials and your principal. And presented with the highest honor in your profession. Here is what Ms. McKenna said through her tears:

God is good.

Dreams come true.

I wasn't the (most gifted and talented) student in my school.

I wasn't the best athlete of the year.

I wasn't asked to prom.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.