When Jean Gorthy was announced as Aiken High School's new teacher of the year on Wednesday, the entire faculty rose as one to celebrate the culinary arts instructor.
Among them was Linda Harmon, the early childhood education teacher.
For the past 24 years, Gorthy and Harmon have taught in classrooms next to each other at Aiken High School. They stay after school until 5 or 6 p.m., sharing ideas and dreams. They earned prestigious National Board Certification at the same time in 2009.
Unexpected challenges during the past 15 months have shaken them – Harmon was diagnosed with a brain tumor in October 2012. Gorthy learned in September 2013 that she has breast cancer and is continuing to undergo treatment. Both point to a strong faith they share as well and the support of their husbands.
Harmon's brain surgery proved to be far more complex than expected, taking two specialists and 11 hours of surgery. She would recuperate at home for more than two months, with Gorthy serving as a go-between from home and work.
Their friendship emerged through the good fortune of taking jobs within two years of each other at Aiken High. They hit it off right away, and their own interests and skill sets could not have worked out any better – Gorthy in food and nutrition and Harmon in early education.
“Linda and I have always been a team,” Gorthy said. “I don't think either of us could have accomplished what we've done without each other. Now we're teaching the children of our former students.”
Both teachers serve as advisors of the FCCLA – Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. Their students get real-world experiences throughout the community and have earned National Technical Honor Society recognition.
“Jean and I get so much joy when our former students come in,” Harmon said. “They just want to see our faces.”
In the summer of 2012, Harmon had noticed a serious hearing problem in her left ear and then balance issues as well. Medication from a doctor didn't help, and he recommended an MRI. Specialists were surprised to find the tumor.
Harmon was frightened, worried that she might not survive or have permanent disabilities. Yet she has recovered remarkably well. The school overall was part of “Team Linda,” and the culinary arts and early childhood education students were there for her, along with Gorthy.
A few months later, “Team Gorthy” emerged. Following the diagnosis, she had a week before the surgery. During her recovery, Gorthy learned she would need a second surgery. That was her low point, only to find how her students and Harmon's students were reaching out to her. A bulletin board was filled with prayers and expressions of love.
Gorthy completed 33 radiation sessions from early December to Jan. 21.
“God has kept us together,” Gorthy said of Harmon. “Both of us are having a cancer adventure. It sounds trite, but we're always there for each other.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Jean Gorthy, center, Aiken High School’s new teacher of the year, is joined by teacher Linda Harmon, left, and Em Ligon, the past teacher of the year. Gorthy and Harmon, best friends since Gorthy jonined the faculty 24 years ago, have been supporting each other after they both were diagnosed with cancer in the past 14 months.×
Aiken Standard file photo In this 2009 file photo, Aiken High School teachers and close friends Jean Gorthy, left, and Linda Harmon, received National Board Certification at the same time.×