These days, Harrison Cowart is a high school senior — quite an accomplished one, in fact.
However, Angie Murphey can’t help but think of him as the determined child she taught in the gifted and talented program when he was in first-third grades.
In elementary school, Cowart was a “perfectionist,” Murphey said, who “wanted 100 on every paper, every project, every problem.” He would become frustrated when that perfection didn’t occur.
“He had to realize that these mistakes weren’t just mistakes — they were opportunities,” Murphey said. “Harrison began to realize that success was not determined by whether or not he encountered obstacles, but how well he faced those obstacles.”
Murphey’s lessons paid off for Cowart, who is this year’s STAR student for Effingham County High School. His SAT score of 2,070 is the highest in the ECHS senior class.
Cowart credits the critical-thinking and self-evaluating skills he learned from Murphey with helping him perform well on the SAT. As Murphey states, her job is not to teach students what to think, but how to think.
“If something was wrong, I wouldn’t tell them what was wrong. I would just say, ‘Something’s wrong. Figure it out,’” she explained. “The point was, you have to think. Don’t come to me and expect me to do it for you.”
Though STAR students typically select a high school teacher as their most influential instructor, Cowart chose Murphey as his STAR teacher. After teaching him in the gifted/talented program at Ebenezer Elementary, Murphey was Cowart’s eighth-grade English teacher at Ebenezer Middle.
“She taught me how to learn and how to think for myself — and that helped me with everything,” Cowart said. “It’s part of who I am today, being able to take information in and digest it and not just regurgitate it, but process and apply it. I’ve used that from first grade to now, and I know I’m going to use that for the rest of my life.”
Whereas Murphey taught Cowart just one day a week in elementary school, she had him every day as his language arts teacher in middle school. She spurred him to enhance his writing techniques in eighth grade.
“I improved exponentially that year,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more supporting, caring, intelligent or demanding teacher.”
Along with his academic achievements, Cowart is a well-rounded student at ECHS. He is involved in several clubs, plays soccer and has done “everything (he) could do with band,” including first chair alto saxophone with the wind ensemble.
Cowart plans to earn a biochemistry degree from Georgia Tech and then attend medical school to become a surgeon. He said he won’t know which specialty he’ll want to pursue until he goes through his clinicals in medical school, but he is leaning toward neurosurgery.
“Harrison has known for quite a while that he wants to succeed,” Murphey said.
She recalled Cowart saying when he was in eighth grade that he wanted to become a doctor. His inspiration was a life science class that explained how the human body works.
“I would just stare at my hand and think, ‘Wow, all that’s happening right now,’” Cowart said. “It blew my mind. So then I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to be a doctor.’”
Though it might seem Murphey was the clear choice to be Cowart’s STAR teacher, he struggled with having to select just one teacher who made the greatest impact on him. He credited all the teachers he’s had through the years with helping him develop into a STAR student.
“Every single one of them deserve this award,” he said. “You can’t compare the contributions of individual teachers, because they’re all so different.”
Cowart made that comment at the Rotary Club of Effingham County’s luncheon honoring this year’s STAR students and teachers. He also thanked school district leaders, including Superintendent Randy Shearouse and ECHS Principal Yancy Ford, and his family.
“You guys have all been there to support me,” he said. “It’s just such a great feeling to have that kind of support system behind me.”
Murphey concurred that several teachers have contributed to Cowart’s success. She called her STAR teacher selection “an honor,” especially considering the years that had passed since she taught Cowart.
“When a student comes back at any point and says to a teacher, ‘You helped, you made a difference,’ that’s just the ultimate,” she said. “You can’t put a dollar figure on that.”
It’s a fitting conclusion to Murphey’s 30-year teaching career. She will retire at the end of this school year.
“I think you need to go out happy,” she said.