At first, Mary Sue Garner appears startled when asked why she became a teacher.

"It just seemed that it is what I've always wanted to do," Garner says tentatively. "I didn't want to work in a store and i didn't want to be a secretary. I didn't have the courage to be an engineer or to go out and break into a field that wasn't for a woman. Teaching seemed to be the place I wanted to go."

Garner is a math teacher at Hammond Junior High in Alexandria. A few times during her 15-year career she has considered changing jobs. But she never has.

"There just isn't another one I would have preferred," she says. "I like to be in the classroom. There's something about being with these kids. There is a challenge there."

By all accounts, Garner's students and their parents are happy she has never changed her mind.

Garner teaches five classes a week, primarily in computer math, to about 100 students. But her work doesn't end there. On many days she is in her classroom before and after school to give pupils extra help. She is the sponsor of Hammond's computer club. This summer, she set up special courses for teachers in computer math. And as often as possible she tries to make it to extracurriculr activities -- a basketball game, a school play.

Garner's willingness to go that extra mile has not been unnoticed.

Some mornings she arrives at school an hour early to help as many as 45 students waiting to work on the 20 computers in her classroom.

"If they're willing to give up some of their time, so am I," said Garner, clearly relishing the students' wide-eyed eagerness.

Garner, 37, earned her teaching degree at Virginia's Radford College. She developed her interest in computer math while taking graduate courses to meet recertification requirements.

"Computers are here now," Garner says. "Everywhere you go you run into a computer. If we can start teaching them in the schools now, these kids will be one step ahead . . ."

This summer, Garner taught several seminars she designed to introduce other teachers to computer math. She also taught a regular summer school course in computer "literacy" -- the basic language of computers, how computers operate and how to program them.

She admits she had a selfish reason for setting up the course: "(It) was for more than just to teach it, I wanted to polish off the edges of the material I was working on during the year as well."

Garner estimates she spends 14 hours a week outside the classroom preparing lessons and correcting homework. She also takes an interest in students' outside activities.

"I make a point of going to at least one of each of [the students'] activities," she says. "I may go to a soccer game, a gymnastics meet, a play or chaperone a dance.

"If you can at least make it to one, the kids are aware that you're showing an interest and it helps. You become the friend of the kids if they know you're aware of more than what's happening in the classroom."

In the few free hours left, Garner serves as parliamentarian for the Education Association of Alexandria, in which she has been an active member for 10 years, and attends school board and PTA meetings regularly.

Garner, who earns $22,664 a year, admits that over the last few years the changes in the teaching field have not always been to her liking.

"Fifteen years ago, all I had to worry about was teaching the kids in my class," she said. "Today we're expected to teach more than the subject matter. We have to teach manners, responsibility, respect, how to follow orders and all those kinds of things that should be taught in the home."

"If I can just close my classroom door and spend my 55 minutes with the kids every class period, I'm happy."

But Garner has no doubt that she chose the right carrer.

"It's always changing. Every day is different, every hour is different because you're with so many people all the time and I like that." i

"If I had to do over again, I would go into teaching. There's no doubt about it."