Starting the school year with a look at some of the best and the brightest young people in Greenwich has become an annual tradition for us. It is also a pleasure. This year’s crop of teens is worthwhile in every way: They’re smart, they’re dedicated, their extracurricular passions go far beyond what looks good on a college application, and they are a lot of fun to be around.
The 2010 group presents a diverse mix, coming from backgrounds as disparate as the tree-shaded serenity of Belle Haven, an Iron Curtain country torn by revolution, and a remote town in sub-Saharan Africa. Academic accomplishment is a given—most admit to being college-driven startimg in middle school—but that’s just the beginning. This year we discovered a poet who speaks to the struggles of his homeland, a born leader who has survived cancer, a politician in the making, a documentarian inspired by family lore, a promising composer of both rock and classical music, and a scientist whose prizewinning process could very well impact the future of solar technology.
They work hard, they don’t waste time, and they are all keenly aware that growing up in Greenwich is a gift. To whom much is given, however, much is expected, and the pressure to perform is considerable. But as Brunswick grad Gus Ruchman points out, “The pressure is a privilege.”
So is getting to know these amazing kids.
Edward Narh, the staff at Greenwich High will tell you, is the kind of student who comes along once in the proverbial blue moon. He also embodies the American Dream in all its shining possibilities. He was born in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, and came here at thirteen years old to join his older brother and his father, who is employed as groundskeeper-handyman on a Greenwich estate.
“Obviously, it was better to be at school here than in Ghana,” he says with a disarming grin. “All you did is sit there in a shirt and tie and memorize stuff; you didn’t learn much.” He did speak English (as well as two African dialects and now French) but not with ease or fluency. “I wasn’t that good at it,” he remembers, “and my writing was terrible. But I wanted to do well so I had to study really hard.” By ninth grade he was making straight As. “It’s not that hard to make As in middle school,” he says modestly, “but high school was different and everything I did was geared toward college, and scholarships.”
Outgoing and personable, he has mentored numerous freshmen and speaks annually at Names Can Really Hurt Us, a school awareness seminar about bullying. After one year of working on the Compass, the GHS yearbook, Edward was chosen as the editor. (He made it his mission to feature pictures of students who normally would have been overlooked.)
He was accepted by four of the five colleges to which he applied: Brown, Georgetown, Emory and the University of Pennsylvania, where he will attend the Wharton School of Business. (Were they asleep at Princeton?) All four offered him the coveted “full ride” of tuition plus room and board. “What do you consider a full ride?” he cracks. “I have to pay six grand for transportation and expenses!” A summer internship at E-Trade in Manhattan confirmed his interest in business, although he hasn’t decided on a specific path. “But whatever I do,” he says, “I know I want to have fun with it.”
If the old saying that all politics is local holds true, then Jack Appelbaum has been building a base since Central Middle School. A seasoned activist, Jack has had letters to the editor published in the Greenwich Time, led the debate team at Greenwich High, and was the 2010 class president. A National Merit Scholar semi-finalist and one of forty Future Global Leaders chosen by the World Affairs Forum, he was also one of GHS’s two student representatives to the Board of Education (along with William Newberry). He successfully changed policy by lobbying to have their time before the board be scheduled instead of left to chance. “It’s developed,” he says of his political savvy, “starting with some great social studies and history teachers.”
Small wonder that Jack did his senior internship in Congressman Jim Himes’s office. Well, he did volunteer for Himes’s 2008 campaign, and almost single-handedly revived the Greenwich Young Democrats while serving on the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee. The summer before his junior year, through the Career Explorations program, he worked for the Boston City Council. “I did a lot of research on different issues,” he recalls. “I got to experience hearings and council meetings, which was cool.”
Last summer he interned in Senator Chris Dodd’s office in Washington, D. C. “I got to see Bernanke testify before the banking committee and I was in the gallery when Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed,” he says. “You’re in an elevator and the doors open and John Kerry walks in. We had a pizza lunch with Senator Dodd in the Foreign Relations room, sitting around this table with nameplates on it: Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Obama.” He shakes his head. “After work we’d go out and play softball, right on the National Mall, against other senators’ offices. You just don’t take it for granted, even the little things.”
Jack will major in government at Georgetown University, alma mater of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. Is a run for office in his future? “I’ll work on campaigns, maybe law school, something to do with the legislative process.” He pauses, and then like a pro hedges his bet: “It’s possible down the road.”
Jessie Stuart is by all accounts a natural leader. She was the 2010 Greenwich Academy senior class president and valedictorian, a GA Ambassador and Peer Leader, and a mainstay of not only the ice hockey but the tennis and cross-country teams. She cofounded Step by Step, a group that organizes—and urges—students to participate in various charity events from local 5K runs for breast cancer, to the New York City Towers to Tunnel run.
Remarkable achievements for any teen, but add in the fact that Jessie Stuart is a cancer survivor and her story is truly inspirational. “The language is very specific,” she says. “For the first five years you’re in remission, but after that?” She smiles. “You can call yourself a survivor.”
When Jessie was twelve she found a lump on her head, which she assumed was simply a cyst. A biopsy, however, revealed it to be evidence of non-Hodgkins lymphoblastic e-cell lymphoma. “I was never going to die, or anything like that,” she says, “but I had to do two and a half years of treatment at Sloan-Kettering. I lost all my hair; I couldn’t go to school. By ninth grade I was back, even though I couldn’t do sports because I was on blood thinners.
“I think it was harder for them,” she says of her parents and three younger siblings. “You’re being taken care of—they have to watch. But I definitely think it made us closer.” Jessie worked for two summers in a lab at Sloan-Kettering, preparing tissue samples for evidence of cancer, some while the patients were still in surgery. “Pretty scary!” she says of the responsibility. This fall she will be premed at Stanford. “At the time, I just wanted to get in, do what I needed to do, and get out,” she says of her illness. “It was only after that I began to think of going into medicine. I’ve been a patient, so I know what’s it’s like.”
“I feel like I have a foot in two countries: America and Poland,” says Olenka Polak, “and it’s like having two pairs of eyes.” The Polish community is close-knit, bound by faith, history and food, and her home in Riverside, which Olenka and her two siblings dubbed the Hotel Polak, was invariably the first stop for immigrants. “I never knew how many kids I’d wake up in bed with,” she jokes, “or who’d be in the kitchen in the morning.”
She was captivated early on by her father’s tales of Solidarnosc, the worker’s solidarity movement founded by Lech Walesa at the Gdansk shipyards in 1980. “They were the best bedtime stories!” she says. “Better than fairy tales.” Jerzy Polak was on the government black list and lived in hiding for eight years until he was arrested and exiled; during that time he bravely photographed the little-known movement in southern Poland. Olenka discovered the negatives—many had been smuggled out by fleeing relatives—in the basement when she was twelve. After scanning one roll into the computer she was hooked. Since then she has spent hundreds of hours captioning the extraordinary cache and Photoshopping serial images into spectacular panoramas, which this fall will be featured in an exhibit at the Davis Center at Harvard University (where she interned this summer).
When she’s not working on her website (bwsolidarnosc.com), Olenka sails competitively (she’s the new captain of the Greenwich High varsity team), teaches beginning violin, crafts seashell jewelry to benefit breast cancer research, works at her aunt’s Polish deli in Norwalk, and teaches religious education at St. Catherine of Siena. “If you’re Polish, you’re Roman Catholic,” she says cheerfully. But documentary filmmaking is clearly her goal. “Hearing the truth, from people who were there?” she says. “It sends shivers. I know I’ll do this, and I know I’ll start with my dad’s story.”
Carolina Hernandez will gladly sleep in a tent and put up with any number of insects to help those in need. The summer before her sophomore year at Convent of the Sacred Heart she went to Tanzania with Adventures Cross Country, where she roughed it in the tent, taught English in a secondary school, planted trees to stave off erosion and helped build a soccer field. “Very interesting country. Some of it is very lush, very green, while other parts are parched, just red clay. I took away a lot,” she reflects. “Just being there, being able to help the kids, gave me a sense of self-confidence that I could use some of the skills I had.”
She started at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in kindergarten (“I’m a lifer,” she quips), where volunteerism is de rigueur. “As soon as I told them I wanted to do community service,” she says, “they were full-fledged supportive. And my parents have always encouraged me to not live in a bubble.” Carolina’s father came here from El Salvador at eighteen. “Life was definitely not a bubble for him,” she says, “which has given me a kind of perspective.”
Like our 2009 teen, Bea Dizon, Carolina installed computers in Sacred Heart-sponsored schools in Uganda. “I didn’t know how to hook up wires and cables,” she says, “but I had to pick it up quickly.” These computers were for educational purposes—word processing, dictionary and history programs, encyclopedias—because books are in such short supply.
“I’ve been really fortunate that my parents love to travel,” she says. “We’ve been to El Salvador, to Egypt and to South Africa.
I just loved being there and knew I wanted to go back, to do community service in Johannesburg where the poverty is so terrible.” This year Carolina will study international relations at Johns Hopkins. “They have a program where you can go to Ghana and I can’t wait,” she says. “I’ve never been to West Africa.”
“You know how people say you shouldn’t meet your heroes?” says Gus Ruchman, a musician and singer with an interest in neuroscience. “Meet your heroes.” After cutting his composing teeth on a string quartet for the Daniel Pearl Foundation World Music Days celebration at Brunswick, he started a folder of “notes and hieroglyphics” for a rock opera. When Stew, the Tony-winning composer of Passing Strange, wrote the music for the Shakespeare on the Sound production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Gus sought him out after a performance. Stew’s advice was simple and life-altering: “It’s easy to concentrate on the music, but keep writing.” “In other words,” says Gus, “don’t forget the text: It’s all about storytelling.” On May 22, 2010, the workshop production of Madhouse: A Rock Opera premiered at Greenwich Academy’s Massey Theatre. In the program Gus wittily thanked his family “for tolerating my infernal banging on the piano…and supporting even my most ridiculous ideas (“You want to do what senior year?).”
He has interned as a lab assistant in Russia and at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and is deeply involved with Seeds for Peace, which brings together Arab and Israeli young people. A 2008 trip to Guatemala to deliver wheelchairs turned him into an activist: On his return he made the documentary Salvation Arrives on Wheels, which won a National Scholastic Art and Writing award, and founded Brunswick Bears for Chairs, a disability awareness group. On one terrifying occasion he even subbed on a “quad” rugby team at an exhibition match. “They were halfway down the court before I’d gotten the chair turned around,” he says admiringly.
“A young musician should listen to everything,” says Gus. When he’s not playing jazz saxophone, he keeps the radio on WQXR and watches Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa on YouTube. But music and science will take a back seat this year. Prior to Harvard, Gus is taking a gap year with Global Citizen Year, a post-high school equivalent of the Peace Corps. “I believe that in an age of globalization,” he says, “the more we know each other the better it will be.”
“It takes work,” says Chrissy Jones, “but I definitely am a balanced person. I have fun, I like to go out with my friends, but I also have time to work on my academics and sports.” (She played varsity tennis and ice hockey at Greenwich Academy, and graduated cum laude.) The wellspring of that balance and confidence is Ashtanga yoga. Starting in eighth grade, Chrissy and her mother have traveled to India yearly to study this demanding method (each level must be mastered before proceeding), and she gets up at dawn to practice. “Yoga can be commercial,” she comments, “but this is really very spiritual, about finding your inner-self. I know that sounds corny, but I know it’s taught me discipline.”
Five years ago Chrissy and her sister Dorothy started a line of homemade spa products, which they package and sell every summer at the family ranch in Kremmling, Colorado (population almost 2,000). “When we were little we’d go through my mother’s bathroom, put her stuff in other bottles, and pretend we’d made it,” she laughs. “Then we got serious, ordering bases off the Internet and adding essential oils.” All proceeds go to Grand Wishes, a local Christmas fund, and last year the Jones girls played Santa Claus with a donation of $2,850.
After an internship at the Excellent School for Boys in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Chrissy became interested in the controversial Charter School Movement—privately funded public schools whose students are chosen by lottery—and made it the topic of her senior independent study. “I substituted in a second grade class, and I got to know a lot of the boys really well,” she says. “The school has a distinct philosophy about how they treat their students. In Bed-Sty, no one expects to go to college, but in this school everything is geared toward college.” Although she plans to study history and anthropology at Stanford this fall, Chrissy hasn’t ruled out a future as an educator, which she attributes to her time in Brooklyn. “It really opened my eyes.”
William Newberry’s idea for the project that garnered him a First Award in the “Engineering: Materials and Bioengineering” category at the prestigious 2010 Intel Science and Engineering Fair is so deceptively simple that you wonder why no one ever thought of it before.
The project was called “Diatom-Cds Nanostructures as a Method to Enhance the Efficiency of a Dye-sensitized Solar Cell,” which William can translate for the layman. “I used the structures of algae to increase the efficiency of a solar panel, which was improved by twelve to fifteen percent judging by the voltage produced,” he explains. Using controlled algae cultures ordered from the University of Texas (you can’t just go out and collect pond scum), he constructed two cells: one with algae, one without. “Light comes into certain forms of algae called diatoms, which have these internal structures that are like little teeny boxes,” he says. “Instead of reflecting as it would off a flat surface, light gets trapped in the boxes. Solar technology is great,” he comments, “but given the cost it’s not as efficient as it could be.” A twelve to fifteen percent improvement means substantial savings, and yes, William is thinking about patenting his discovery.
He was named Greenwich High’s Scholar/Athlete of the Year. “Sports is a pretty big thing with me,” says this 2010 student body president and captain of the ski, tennis and cross-country teams (summer is for golf, which he may play for Harvard). He was one of only 2,500 National Merit Scholars nationwide, and one of two from Connecticut chosen for Boys’ Nation, a government leadership program in Washington, D. C.
This summer he interned at a local hedge fund company, where he researched chemical companies that manufacture surfactants (oil-busting compounds like Dawn, the dish detergent used to clean birds) with the much-needed potential to disperse the Gulf of Mexico spill. “After that?” he says. “I’m going to relax before college—and play a lot of golf.”
words of hope
They groan in pain.
Their livelihood has been strangled.
The muscle of their survival has been weakened.
Every day they bear their cross,
Wear crowns made of thorns.
And deep into the abyss they are led
Like lambs to the slaughter.
So begins Innocent Tswamuno’s poem, “My People,” inspired by the atrocities being committed by the current ruling political party in Zimbabwe, his home. “Poetry has great meaning to me,” he says, “but it’s funny, because sometimes I don’t even understand what I write!”
Innocent—friends call him Inno—is home every summer with his parents and six siblings: During the school year he is here with his “second family,” fashion and interior designer Andrea Jovine Coopersmith and her son Ali.
Inno’s father is a Pentecostal Protestant minister. “It shaped me into the person I am today,” he says simply. “Through the church I learned at a tender age that hope is a good thing. When you grow up in an unstable environment you need something intangible, something that you can turn to when your world is upside-down. For me that was, and is, God.”
It was also through the church that Inno found his musical gift, and very possibly the direction of his life. When his older brother David, the church organist, left for college in America, Inno stepped up and taught himself organ and piano. “I refined my skill but I cannot say I’m good yet,” he says. “I still have a long way to go. And I am not complacent just playing by ear.” He will do a post-graduate year at Brunswick, assistant teaching in the music department, taking music theory and AP courses, and working on HOPE ALIVE, a charity to benefit underprivileged families in Zimbabwe he started with David and Ali Coopersmith.
“Greenwich and Zimbabwe are two different worlds,” he reflects. “Most people there lead very simple lives; life is slow paced, and they live each day as it comes. But there’s a freedom of expression here that we just don’t have [in Zimbabwe]. I can honestly say I am blessed to have friends who value the opportunities and blessings they have. Of course there are some who don’t know how lucky they are, but I think it’s because they haven’t been exposed to the outside world.”
If you’re lucky, there’s a girl like Taylor Dawson in your neighborhood: the go-to babysitter who makes time for every kid, whether it’s help with homework, a game of tag or just lending an ear. It was almost inevitable that she would decide to be an elementary school teacher. “My entire life has been working with kids and it’s a real passion of mine,” she says. “Everything that I’ve gone into—community service, whatever—has been about kids.”
This year Taylor was the president of Greenwich High’s YNET (Youth Network), which is affiliated with the domestic violence services of the YWCA. “We focus on teen dating violence,” says Taylor, who recruited new members for training and arranged drop-in hours for students to speak one-on-one with a professional counselor from the Y.
An effective public speaker for her cause, she successfully petitioned the Board of Education to include dating violence in the high school health curriculum. “We also work on awareness and trying to get the word out there,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know that teen dating violence exists, and it’s more prevalent in Greenwich than you would think.”
Taylor explains that some fifteen percent of teens in Fairfield County have experienced dating violence (this doesn’t include sexual abuse). “Physical dating violence can be everything from grabbing you to pull you out of a car to punching you, to tickling you to the point where you can’t breathe,” says Taylor. “Most of it goes unreported, and there’s no real way to calculate the emotional damage. It’s a terrible problem.”
This fall Taylor will major in elementary education at Elon University in North Carolina, and is excited that by her second semester she’ll be working in a classroom. She spent her senior internship in the kindergarten at Dundee School and will tell you that every minute was wonderful. “Obviously, kindergarten is where I’m meant to be, but I also had the chance to experience other grades. And I love it when the kids call me Miss Dawson,” she says warmly. “It makes me feel like a real teacher.”