“A Graduation for Two” was a story written by local photo-journalist Patrisha McLean in the Camden Herald in late June.

It was about Sarah and Amy and their inspiring journey to a diploma. It was also about how one person can affect the lives of many; by giving these two people a hand up and a lift, teacher Mike Lokuta changed the world for Sarah and Amy, but also for their young children, their future children, and all who will feel the ripple effect of their new beginning.

Mike’s approach was to let them know they mattered, constantly telling them they could do it. Sarah tells Patrisha; “Every day I said, ‘I can’t do this’ and every day Mike answered back, “Yes you can.”

When you value people, like Mike did, they become valuable. When you insist that they are worthy, they begin to feel worthy.

A folklore story tells of a teacher’s acceptance speech for “Teacher of the Year.” She tells the audience that she really didn’t deserve the award; after all, she was given a class of superior students, all with very high IQs. She continues; “I was so excited to have these exceptional students coming to me that I spent a good part of summer developing the curriculum you’re honoring me for today. My expectations were high, and they did not disappoint.”

Her principal looked perplexed; the class was not gifted or honor students, they were not particularly high achievers. He asked the teacher; “What made you think they were exceptional?”

She responded that when given the list in the fall, all the students had IQs over 110. The principal cocked his head and thought for a minute; a smile formed as he told her; “Those weren’t their IQs, those were their locker numbers.”

Often what you expect is what you get; so true with Mike and his two pupils.

The rest of the story is that Sarah and Amy are inmates; Amy dropped out of Camden Hills and at 38 has spent eight years behind bars for various drug-related offenses, including an overdose of heroin last year. Her abuse started when she got drunk at her mother’s wedding at 11 years old. Amy is enrolling in a cosmetology and business management program at the Aveda School in Augusta and wants to open her own business someday. She also hopes to pay it forward, when she is drug-free for the necessary number of years, by becoming a drug-and-alcohol counselor.

Sarah, 32, also has a drug history; at 14 she gave birth to the first of four children. It died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and her doctor prescribed drugs for grief. Her life spiraled out of control; she lost custody of her children and was committing crimes to feed her addictions. As an eighth-grade dropout, she tells Patrisha; “I didn’t think I was smart enough for the math, science, reading and social studies needed to get my diploma.”

But, Mike believed; when Sarah took her equivalency test online, she clicked the end button and went to the bottom of the page to see her score, needing an eight to pass. “My heart was racing right out of my chest,” she says; “It popped up 13!” Sarah will also give back as she pursues classes at UMaine in drug and alcohol counseling.

While the “rest of the story” honors the grit and determination of these women, and is another feather in the hat of Lokuta, a teacher for 28 years in Maine jails and prisons, there was a missed opportunity.

Mike worked with one of the local high schools to get his students included in graduation ceremonies; inclusion would have been a great first step in mainstreaming these two hardworking women back into society as they serve out their sentences. They crammed four years of high school education into a six-month intensive program; they deserved the marching bands, not just the “Here’s your diploma, have a nice day.”

When it fell through, Mike did the next best thing, working with Cindy Gardner, head of programs and services, to give them a “graduation for two.” Mike borrowed caps and gowns from Camden Hills and found a CD of "Pomp and Circumstance," while the kitchen baked a cake, icing it “Congratulations Graduates.” Their fellow inmates set up the gym.

Family was invited and their achievement honored; at the jail, a “no touching sign” is customary — it helps keep contraband out and makes it easier for guards to make sure all is kosher. On this occasion, they turned their heads – there was lots of hugging.

The notion that if you expect great things, great things will follow is true; the story of Sarah, Amy and Mike bears witness to this.

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

— Jean Jacques Rousseau, philosopher and author (1712-1788)