"I've honestly been writing since I could hold a pencil, but I never considered myself a writer until a few years ago," Payton Baker said. "It feels a little surreal to know that people read the words I wrote and thought it was good enough."
Baker, a senior at Sonoraville High School, was recently named a state-level winner in the Young Georgia Author competition. The competition, which has been ongoing for two decades, is open to any student enrolled in Georgia's public schools, grades K-12.
Baker has competed before, both in the sixth and ninth grades. And as a senior she decided to enter once again, as it was her last chance and she didn't want to miss out on the opportunity.
She submitted her piece "Look at your Future," which is a story about the days after her grandfather's death and funeral, depicting her family's reaction to death. Baker said the piece was specifically inspired by riding with her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother to the funeral.
"I was struck by the strength of the women around me and grateful to have grown up around and been raised by them," Baker said.
The young author commented how the piece also touched on degenerative diseases, as her grandfather had Parkinson's for six years, and watching his health decline was a horrible experience for her family.
Despite the negative experience, Baker said this story also reflects on peace in the midst of tragedy.
"There was a strange sort of relief in our house after he died, because we knew he wasn't suffering anymore," Baker said. "Finding peace in death felt so strange and contradictory, but it helped our family heal."
The two-page reflective piece was what she wrote for the YGA competition, but she never thought it would make it past the county, let alone continue on to the state level.
Yet, Baker placed first at both the local and RESA — Regional Educational Service Agency — levels, and went on to represent Northwest Georgia RESA in the state level competition, having her work put up against 15 other RESA level winners from across the state before receiving this top honor.
"When I found out I had won at the state level, I was extremely proud and grateful to have had such an amazing family," Baker said. "I know that the other district level winners were amazing writers, so that just elevates the honor."
Baker will be honored at the State Board of Education meeting on May 1, which she said her family would likely accompany her to, and again at the Gordon County Board of Education meeting on May 13.
After being awarded this recognition, Baker commented that she would love to "explore (her) identity as a writer" in the future, potentially pursuing a career in writing if she ever has the opportunity.
"Whether or not I write professionally, I will always write as a hobby for myself," Baker said. "Winning this competition has been a great end to my senior year and high school experience as a whole."
The former manager of sweetFrog in Rome and youth minister at a Gordon County church was sentenced to serve eight years in prison and 17 years probation Tuesday afternoon following his guilty plea to three charges of sexual misconduct with a minor online.
Zachary Michael Baker, 29, of 601 College St., pleaded guilty to criminal attempt to commit aggravated child molestation, sexual exploitation of a child by use of a computer and obscene internet contact with a child.
Baker never physically made contact with the 14-year-old boy named "Aidan," who was actually Capt. Ojilvia Lom with Floyd County police.
He was arrested on Jones Bend Road where Baker was supposed to meet Aidan for oral sex.
Judge Jack Niedrach took five minutes to deliberate on Baker's sentence after hearing from Floyd County Assistant District Attorney Emily Johnson, defense attorney Chris Twyman, Baker's mother, a childhood best friend and Baker himself.
Twyman told the court that Baker has been gainfully employed since he was released on bond in January and works two jobs to support his family. Baker has attended 16 weeks of group therapy and is a part of a men's support group, Twyman said.
"He has moved forward to be productive," he said.
Twyman petitioned the court for a lighter sentence since this was Baker's first time coming before the court accused of a crime. Twyman asked the judge for a sentence less than five years since a child was not actually involved.
Baker thanked the judge for his January bond hearing and for granting him bond.
"As bad as this has been a lot of good has come out of it," Baker said. Through his group therapy he said he learned about how to deal with trauma he experienced when he was younger.
"When you are weak or struggling with something, it's never OK to keep that to yourself," he said.
Baker told the court he had faced many consequences from his actions already, and asked to be sentenced only to probation and community service so he could be a part of the community.
The state's case against Baker began with an ad he posted on Craigslist asking for other men to experiment with. This is when "Aidan" contacted him and stated he was a 14-year-old boy, Johnson said. According to the ADA Baker did not immediately ask for sex but instead slowly "groomed" him in order to have a relationship with him.
Correspondences between Baker and "Aidan" evolved from Baker acting as a mentor who warned "Aidan" that he was not safe on the website to making plans to see each other in public. According to the correspondences Baker asked "Aidan" if his mom could bring him by sweetFrog so they could see each other and Baker could make sure he wasn't a member of law enforcement. The emails and texts from Baker became more and more explicit, said Johnson.
"This is the behavior of a predator," she said.
The correspondences ended when Baker was arrested by Floyd County police on Jones Bend Road where he planned to meet "Aidan" to have a sexual encounter. Johnson said it was a good thing it was Floyd police who met him and not an actual 14-year-old boy.
Niedrach allowed for Baker to receive credit for his time already spent in jail prior to being released on bond. The judge did deny a request for Baker to be sentenced under the First Offender Act, which would have cleared his criminal record after he successfully completed his sentence. Once released from prison Baker will have to follow the regulations of a probationer and register as a sex offender.
When Jayme Crowley attended Fairmount Elementary School as a student, the school felt like home to her. Years later, as the school's current music teacher, she said the school and the Fairmount community are where she wants to spend her future.
"I plan to stay here as long as possible," Crowley said. "I absolutely love where I work, and it's just wonderful to see the people who started influencing me at such a young age, and be able to work with them now as adults."
And Crowley isn't just Fairmount Elementary's music teacher, but she's also one of this year's recognized teachers in the school system.
Crowley was announced in March to be one of the three finalists for Gordon County Schools' district-wide Teacher of the Year honor, along with Nikki Hampton, from W.L. Swain, and Kelly Pendley, from Red Bud Elementary School.
"I felt very honored, very blessed and very humbled that everyone thought I did a good enough job to be nominated," Crowley said.
When it was publicized that she was in the top three, Crowley was instructing a kindergarten class, and she said seeing the smiles on her students' faces as they heard the announcement made it a special moment for her.
Crowley herself became interested in music at a young age, almost as young as her kindergarten students. Growing up with her mother a music teacher, Crowley not only had a unique perspective into a teacher's life, but also what a future in music education might look like.
In college, she attended Reinhardt University and eventually landed on studying music education, though she wasn't sure about doing that for the first two years of her degree. But when her sister had her first child, through babysitting, Crowley noticed how music was prominent in a child's growth.
"I noticed how music was so influential for a child at a young age, it was the only thing that calmed him down," Crowley said. "I thought maybe education is where my heart is calling me, not performing."
Graduating in 2010, Crowley knew she wanted to come back to her home and teach for Gordon County Schools, and ideally she wanted to teach at her elementary school.
"The doors just kind of all fell into place," Crowley said about returning to Fairmount Elementary. "It was so nice to be able to come home. This school was home for me."
And in the eight years that she's been teaching music at Fairmount, she said she has loved working with her students and seeing them grow, both as musicians and individuals.
Crowley said her teaching philosophy follows the concepts of love, leadership and music, and she tries to incorporate those ideas into every lesson, every class and every interaction.
"It goes back to my upbringing, my mother was one of the greatest influences in my life," Crowley said, referring back to seeing her mother teach music for years. "It's important for me to teach them to love others and to be kind. I want them to associate that with everything they do."
Fairmount Elementary Principal Deryl Dennis, who has been at the school for almost two years now, said Crowley's class is one that students look forward to.
"I've had 12 other music teachers I've worked with prior to Mrs. Crowley and she puts those all to shame," Dennis said. "She sees the big picture and how (students) can apply what they're learning in this classroom. And she teaches them to love one another."
Crowley said not only does she love her job and her kids, but she also views music education as laying the foundation for these students' education and future lives.
"What we give them now will help carry them to where they're going to go," she said.
Crowley holds a Bachelors of Music Education from Reinhardt University, where she attended on a music scholarship and graduated summa cum laude in 2010.
The 2019-2020 Gordon County Schools' Teacher of the Year will be named at a banquet held in honor of the three finalists on April 30.
"I felt very honored, very blessed and very humbled that everyone thought I did a good enough job to be nominated.
Music teacher Jayme Crowley
This is Part Two of a series dedicated to the Gordon County Schools' three Teacher of the Year finalists: Nikki Hampton, Jayme Crowley and Kelly Pendley.
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