By People Staff
December 16, 2009 12:00 PM

American Idol may have made Carrie Underwood a star, but it was Checotah, Okla., elementary-school music teacher Kathy Cooper who gave her the courage to try. “She was my music teacher from first through sixth grades,” says Underwood, 26. “Her class was the first time I actually got to be onstage and sing by myself. I guess she figured I could handle it. If she hadn’t given me that solo, who knows where I’d be. Maybe nobody would have ever figured it out, including myself.”

Underwood’s career really began when she played Mother Nature in a fourth-grade musical. “She had a big ol’ solo, and it was just wonderful,” Cooper recalls of Underwood’s lead role. Later that same year Ms. Cooper gave Carrie another shot at the spotlight in the school talent show. “I wanted to show her off, so I had her sing ‘Somewhere Out There’ from the movie An American Tail. She was just so good and wasn’t scared at all,” recalls Cooper. “I went and told her mom, ‘Carol, she’s going to be good if she stays with it.’ ”

What Underwood remembers most is Cooper’s passion for the music. “She was always really positive about everything,” she says. “She never treated me special. We all got special attention from her. Whether we were superstars because of it or not never made a difference. She just wanted us to love music.”

As a way to say thank you, Underwood recently donated new music instruments to her old school district, a joint gift from her C.A.T.S. Foundation and the Academy of Country Music’s Lifting Lives program. But for Cooper, seeing Underwood succeed is all the thanks she needs. “It’s what she’s wanted to do from fourth grade on,” she says. “I’m just proud of her for making her dream come true.”