I recently came across this essay I wrote about Sarah Jane. She was applying to attend Missouri Scholars Academy, a program that brings outstanding high school students together from each town in the state.
Sarah Jane’s annual question started the summer before 5th grade: “Next year, will my teacher teach me about the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics?” She had surpassed her father’s limited ability to explain the non-observable universe and wasn’t satisfied. That is typical Sarah Jane; always striving to learn more and learn faster. It’s simply not in her nature to abide an unanswered question or an unsolved puzzle. In middle school she began to quench her own thirst for theoretical physics by tackling books like Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages: Unraveling the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. Now she attempts to explain the concepts she’s discovered to her mystified parents.
Sarah Jane fills her life with learning, activity, and socialization, yet she has never left a project or assignment for a last-minute cram session. She manages her own schedule of schoolwork, piano lessons, play practice, orchestra rehearsals, social activities, scholar bowl, and family chores. It’s important to her to keep her responsibilities under control so that she has plenty of worry-free time for leisure reading and interaction with her network of friends. She relentlessly works ahead, using downtime during one activity to get ahead on another. Her AP European History review book was half read before the school year even began, traveling with her on car trips and to the swimming pool.
Sarah Jane has always been emotionally mature and sophisticated. For example, during eighth grade, she became passionately involved in competitive forensics and spent weeks practicing a comedic interpretation. At her first competition, she received a 4th place medal. She studiously reviewed the judges’ critiques, working to improve the areas that were cited as weaknesses. At the following competition, she won 1st place. While she was pleased to win the top prize, the following day she expressed an edge of disappointment. “Dad, she said, “When I came in 4th, the judges gave me advice on what I needed to improve, but this time they only wrote things like ‘well done’ and ‘good job.’ I know my routine still isn’t perfect, but how can I improve it without advice? I’d rather come in 4th with critiques than be first and not have useful feedback.”
Discovering relationships between different learning experiences has always been a thrill for Sarah Jane. Her incisive questions often surprised adults. For example, her elementary school brought in a guitar player who performed ragtime songs originally written for the piano. During the question and answer session, the musician was stunned when 9-year-old Sarah Jane asked, “Is converting songs to a different instrument kind of like transposing a song to a different key on the piano?” Later, in a 9th grade government class, the instructor was providing basic background on major forms of government and economic systems when Sarah Jane had an epiphany. She raised her hand: “Was the rise of communism a backlash against unchecked Dickensian-style capitalism?”
It’s been a wonder to watch Sarah Jane grow up into an accomplished, balanced young woman. Her intellectual and emotional maturity has shown through since she was a toddler. One morning when she was two, she looked up at the morning sky and saw the moon still shining. “I want to go there,” she informed her father. From that moment, she added astronaut to her running list of things she wanted to be, along with doctor, mommy, and dancer. While her plans have shifted over time, her clarity of concept and drive to set and meet goals have only grown.
In elementary school, Sarah Jane was lucky to participate in an experimental mixed-age classroom. A pair of master educators guided her through four grades. Goal setting, creative problem solving, team effort, and leadership skills were cornerstones of the classroom. In middle school, Sarah Jane demonstrated her ability to pull together a diverse group of friends while maintaining academic excellence. Her network spanned cliques and grade levels. Her parties brought together girls who didn’t previously socialize at school but found camaraderie in Sarah Jane’s circle.
She was active in student council, serving as 7th grade class president, and assuming the role of overall student council president in 8th grade. She didn’t just take these roles as ceremonial. She set practical goals and achieved them. For example, in 7th grade she led an effort to raise funds and gain administration support to install shower curtains in the PE locker rooms.
When she graduated from 8th grade, she not only led her class in academics, but was also granted Sedalia Middle School’s highest honor, the Scholarship Award, which recognizes the student who demonstrates an outstanding balance of achievement in academics, physical fitness, leadership, and community service.
As her parents, we’ve understood that Sarah Jane’s talent and intellect deserve to be nurtured and challenged. In Sedalia, we were very involved in supporting the school system, but also recognized its limitations. In the end, we felt that the best course of action was to relocate to a school system with greater opportunities, but that was a drastic step we couldn’t take against Sarah Jane’s wishes. When we broached the idea, she readily agreed. Her goals call for attending a prestigious college, and she was intent on having the academic preparation to be successful.
Uprooting our lives was no small matter. Before we could buy a new house, we had to decide where to move. We did extensive research to select a high school that would be the best match to our criteria. In the end, Sarah Jane toured three schools and made the final decision about which institution would be the best fit.
We moved in the summer before her 9th grade year, full of hope. Once school started, however, Sarah Jane found the transition more traumatic than she had anticipated. She had to catch up with a new level of academic rigor, especially in mathematics where the Sedalia system had significantly slowed her progress. On top of that, she was now removed from her old network of friends and new relationships didn’t quickly materialize. She spent several months concerned and unhappy, but gradually began to find the groove. By the end of her freshman year, she had conquered her challenges in math and had assembled a new, diverse cadre of friends.
Sarah Jane thrives on new experiences, new relationships, and new challenges. We see MSA, should she be selected to attend, as a pivotal opportunity for her to engage and function within a world of her peers – other students drawn toward a lifetime of leadership. MSA is a chance for her to discover new intellectual interests and new relationships with bright minds.
As Sarah Jane looks forward to the future, her thoughts are turning to the challenge of discovering which of her broad interests she most wants to pursue. Unlike many of us, she is accomplished in both analytical and creative thinking. She’s particularly intrigued by math, science, literature, language, politics, and psychology. She’s decided that she wants to be known as an expert in her field but is concerned that “her field” is currently “things that Sarah Jane likes.” She has determined that she needs to explore her interests, meet people from various disciplines, and try on various roles to see what most sparks her endless curiosity and passion to learn and create.
As her parents, we can’t foresee the future. But, as we think back on how she’s lived the past sixteen years, it’s clear that Sarah Jane will soon look up, point at her goal, and say “I want to go there.” And, have no doubt, she will go there.