Guiding Light, Mary McKnight

Jenny Scarborough
Miss Mary with two adoring Kindergarteners
Miss Mary with two adoring Kindergarteners

When Ocracoke School guidance counselor Mary McKnight answered the call,

she heard Principal Padgett's accent and the word 'Ocracoke'.  "I was trying to put it all together, thinking 'Where in the world?'" she said.

After receiving her Masters in Counseling from East Tennesee State University, she "applied anywhere and everywhere" in the hopes of finding a job in her field.  She visited the island for the first time to interview, and felt like it "just fit."  She was pleased to learn that Padgett thought Mary fit Ocracoke School, and began work in August, 2011.

Before applying, Mary looked at Hyde County on a map, and thought "it looked close to the beach."  Mary is from Greeneville, Tennessee, in the Appalachian mountains.  After her work day ends, Mary can be found enjoying the lifeguard beach with her golden retriever Jake.  

She spends time with every student in Ocracoke's K-12 school, meeting weekly with the elementary and middle school grades, and individually with high schoolers.  Eighth graders are the sole exception, as they have been preparing for a mandated end of year test.

Any Ocracoke School student who needs support can see Mary one on one.   

Senior Virginia Downes said Mary is "wonderful."  "It's great to have someone who wants to help us and encourages us to do the best we can, and to go places we want to go."  Applying for college and getting financial aid is "not the most fun process," said Virginia, and Mary "has definitely been there."

In the classroom, Mary helps students understand the virtues of responsiblity and respect.  

Mary wants to expose Ocracoke students to the larger world, and encourages discussion of race and difference.  Ocracoke has both "a lot of diversity and very little diversity," she said.  

Her students recently learned about dday in Birmingham, Alabama, where children marched to protest injustice during the civil rights movement.  "Think about standing up for something you believe in," said Mary.  "You can make a difference at your age."  

This learning ties into a unit she is teaching about bullying.  Mary sees "a lot of kids here with a lot of courage."  The entire middle school meets together to understand how Ocracoke School defines bullying, to talk about what it means to be a bystander, and practices stepping in to stop bullying.

The group also discusses cyber-bullying with facebook and texts.  Ocracoke School's disciplinary issues are proportionate to the size of the student body, she said.  "They are very much like siblings, and some of the bickering is inevitable."  But it does cross the line, and Mary asks her student to talk about that line, with each other.  "I don't want them to be able to say, 'I didn't know.'"  

After receiving her 2008 undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Tennessee, with a minor in Elementary Education, Mary worked as an expressive therapist at a psychiatric hospital, using art, music and gardening as tools.  "That was when I knew counseling was for me," she said.  "Pretty much everyone in my family is in education.  I love being around kids."

One of four children, Mary grew up on a pick-your-own berry farm her parents ran during summers off from teaching.  They had rabbits, goats, cows, peacocks, and at one point, ostriches.  "We appreciate the farm now that we are older," she said, smiling.  

Mary is "really enjoying" being on Ocracoke. "Everyone has been kind and welcoming."  Her family likes the island, too, and frequently visit.  "I am so content being here,"  said Mary.  "I'm learning so much about myself and growing as an individual."

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