Brenda Barney hadn't been in a classroom for over 20 years - closer to 30, actually - when she decided to take a math course at Coppin State University.
She flunked it.
So she enrolled at Baltimore City Community College to make up the course. She took English 101 too, and that's when Lynn Kerr noticed something about Barney.
"I saw the spark in her," Kerr said. It's a spark that Kerr, who's taught English at BCCC since 1991, tries to fan into a blaze for learning whenever she sees it. Kerr became more than Barney's English professor: She became a mentor who encouraged her to get a degree from BCCC and to attend the Johns Hopkins University. Three degrees - for Barney - later, the two remain close friends, constantly e-mailing each other and occasionally meeting for lunch.
Kerr and her husband attended Barney's graduation from Hopkins when Barney received her bachelor's and master's degrees from the school. Kerr is white and from Mount Vernon, N.Y. She's had several jobs, most of them teaching, but among them were stints as a legislative assistant for Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana and a congressional case worker for Rep. William Maillard of California.
"Boggs was a Democrat and Maillard was a Republican," Kerr recalled, showing that her congressional work experience was truly bipartisan.
Kerr got her bachelor's degree in English and secondary education from the State University of New York-Cortland and her master's in literature from Hopkins. She speaks Greek, French and Spanish as well as English.
Barney is black, 52 years old and from Baltimore. She dropped out of what was then Eastern High School when she was 17. In 1987, she took a job far removed from Kerr's world of teaching in schools and working for congressmen: Barney became a corrections officer.
For 20 years, Barney worked in places like the Maryland House of Correction Annex, the Maryland House of Correction and the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup. When she finally retired as a corrections officer in December of last year, she was working at the Baltimore City Correctional Center, which is part of the Metropolitan Transition Center.
Along the way, Barney got her General Educational Development diploma from Parkville High School. That was in 1980, when she was working as a unit clerk and nursing assistant at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She left GBMC to join the exciting and downright dangerous world of corrections officers.
"The Annex was probably the most dangerous," Barney said of all the places she worked as a corrections officer, "because there wasn't enough equipment for corrections officers." The most challenging part of being a corrections officer, Barney remembered, was dealing with inmates who had multiple life sentences or death sentences.
"They're never looking at going home," Barney said, "so what's next?" What, indeed, can corrections officers do with such inmates? Arrest 'em?
In 1999, Barney took that math course at Coppin. A year later, she was enrolled in BCCC. After 26 years out of school, Barney had decided it was time to go back.
"I knew I wanted to retire in 2007," Barney said, "and I didn't want to be stuck because I wasn't educated. I didn't want to be stuck because I couldn't leave. I wanted the option to leave if I wanted to."
But Kerr noticed a problem after Barney enrolled in her English 101 class.
"She was very hesitant to do her paper," Kerr said of Barney. "She had no self-confidence about her writing. Having been out of school for decades, she had no confidence."
Kerr has a policy of making her students rewrite their papers; she noticed Barney's grew with each rewrite. Under Kerr's mentoring, Barney got her associate's degree in BCCC's general studies transfer program in 2004. With Kerr's encouragement, Barney got a bachelor's in management and leadership from Hopkins in 2006 and a master's in the school's management and leadership program in 2007.
"I screamed and cried like a proud parent," Kerr said when she saw Barney get her master's.
Despite Kerr's joy, this story doesn't have quite a happy ending yet: Barney's still looking for work with either the federal government or as a teacher.
"I want to work for the federal government in a capacity where I can be productive and helpful to my fellow citizens," Barney said. "I would like to teach in college, where I would be able to mentor and inspire students like I was mentored and inspired by my college teachers, so that they can achieve and never give up on their goals and dreams."
That main mentor, Barney said, was Kerr.
"Nobody else stuck with me like that," Barney said of Kerr, "not from any school."