By ROGER MOONEY
Praise Temple Christian Academy teacher Anna Langley found herself a little teary-eyed recently, while watching the seniors walk down the aisle during practice for the June 4 graduation ceremony.
Langley, who has taught at the school for three years, will miss all the seniors, including one who Langley admits held a special place in her class and at Praise Temple in general.
That would be Samantha Gulli, the salutatorian of the Class of 2021, who was vice president of the student council, captain and MVP of the volleyball team, a teacher’s aide, an actress in all the school plays and a volunteer in every activity and fundraiser held at the school during the last four years.
“I can’t imagine a classroom without her,” Langley said. “There are seniors who graduate and leave, but when there was one who was so involved in so many aspects of the school, it leaves a little bigger hole.”
Oh, Samantha is not really leaving Praise Temple. She plans to enter cosmetology school to pursue her lifelong ambition of owning her own beauty salon, but she said she will continue her work as a teacher’s aide next year. She would love to help Langley, who coaches volleyball, as an assistant coach.
“I may be graduating, but I will still be there,” Samantha said.
Samantha, who lives in Clermont, Florida, began attending the K-12 Christian private school in nearby Groveland as a freshman. After graduating from a district middle school, Samantha wanted to attend a Christian high school.
“I wanted to learn more about the Bible,” Samantha said, “and I wasn’t going to learn about it at a (district) school.”
“I wouldn’t be here without this scholarship,” Samantha said. “I really appreciate it. I’m really thankful and grateful for it.”
“The Step Up scholarship has been a blessing,” her mom, Michelle Gulli, said. “It gave her this opportunity.”
Samantha flourished in high school, both academically and socially.
When she arrived at Praise Temple, she was behind in math and English but worked during the school years and over the summers to catch up by her senior year. Her grades were high enough to rank her second in the graduating class.
“That took not only a lot of hard work but a lot of thorough work that had to be done well,” Langley said.
Said Gulli: “Samantha had to hustle, but she’s a hard worker.”
Gulli, who works at the school as a teacher’s aide, described her daughter as a “wallflower” before she entered Praise Temple.
“Always quiet and good,” she said. “But (in high school), she came out of her shell. That’s what I noticed. It really helped her blossom. I never thought she would be captain of a volleyball team or vice president of her high school.”
Samantha credited that to joining the volleyball team and to making friends with peers who share her Christian values.
“The volleyball team really helped me to open up, because it’s a very verbal sport,” she said. “I was forced to open up to be a good player, teammate, and that carried over to my schoolwork and how I interacted with other people.”
As for her high school friends, Samantha said, “The Christian atmosphere around me made it easier to fit in. It made me feel at home.”
Samantha speaks freely about her faith. It’s a major part of her makeup. Perhaps that’s no surprise since she has a grandfather and great-grandfather who were involved in ministry.
Samantha’s faith and love for volleyball came together when she received the Christian Character Award after one season. The award was voted on by the opposing coaches.
“I liked that better than the trophy for coming in second in the state,” Gulli said. “I like that better than being named captain.”
It’s also of little surprise that Samantha wants a career as a hairstylist and to own a salon. Her mom is a hairstylist. She has an aunt and a grandfather who both owned salons.
“It’s in the family,” she said.
Samantha’s popularity at school stems from her leadership ability, her devotion to her faith (which she shares with the students in the lower grades) and her disposition, which can best be described as sunny.
“What stands out to me probably more than the academics is I don’t ever recall seeing her come in with an attitude,” Langley said. “She’s always here with a smile, encouraging other students. She’s always happy and it’s infectious to others.”
What Gulli wanted four years ago for her daughter was a faith-based education that would challenge her academically and prepare her for life beyond high school and a career. Samantha received that and more.
“I don’t think there was a day in her high school career that was wasted,” Langley said. “Every day she made the most of it and went above and beyond in whatever it was, whether it was academics or making her fellow peers happier or helping out with the teachers. Whatever it was, she made the most of it.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.