As he sits at the bulky wooden tables in the Western Reserve Academy English classroom, a peer is already presenting on Siddhartha. Eric, confident, engaged and smart, asks the first question. A year ago, he finished second in his class with a 6.95 GPA out of 7. Now, he's prepping for exams in honors physics and honors chemistry, an ambitious combo considering you're supposed to finish physics before tackling chem.
But he's more than his résumé. He talks to many kids he passes on campus, and it's clear he cares about his friends. On the way from his home in Silver Lake, he stopped to get iced coffee for himself and a friend (the real reason for his tardiness). Still, he's not a troublemaker; he's a likeable guy who's comfortable at WRA.
So much so that as he leaves Seymour Hall, he tosses his backpack in a pile of others left in the entryway. This, apparently, is not an odd thing to do because the sidewalk leading to Seymour is lined with them.
Eric seems unsure why he'd have to explain the ritual, as if the thought of theft hardly crosses his mind.
"We're not immune to it, but we're a community of trust," E. Tariq Thomas, director of college guidance, later explains. The school is rooted in three words: Excellence. Integrity. Compassion. "Students respect each other for maintaining that integrity."
They have to. For the 400 students, including Eric and the 140 other day students, the boarding school is home. They enjoy family-style lunches on Thursdays in the dining hall that, with its tall windows and chandeliers, looks like an upscale mess hall. And they even have a pet: BJ (short for Bertha Jane), a stocky yellow dog with an affinity for the science building elevator.
For morning meeting, a tradition since the brick chapel was erected in 1836, this family of students, faculty and staff gather in the uncomfortable wooden pews every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. For today's rare Thursday meeting before exams, sentiment is thick.
Head of school Chris Burner sits near the stage and smiles with pride as his seniors run their final meeting of the year. They make announcements and deliver inside jokes, and the crowd warmly welcomes teachers and students to the front with claps and cheers.
Despite nerves, senior Thomas Joe takes the lectern for his This I Believe speech, a duty students take turns with throughout the year. "There's a sort of innate drive in everyone to get decent grades or that varsity letter, ... but I can't remember the last time someone mentioned the fundamental statement, Be happy,' " he says. "This I believe: True happiness lies in interactions with people, in what makes the soul content, not in what indulges society's lust. Live true to yourself."
Eric stares out a window while considering Thomas' words. He understands the message well. As a freshman, he lived in the library. Although the quality time with his books paid off, his GPA seems less important now that he's spent the past year making more time for friends. "I'm happier now," he later explains.
Morning meeting ends with the moving up ceremony, when seniors leave and the others, including the sophomores who were designated to the back, get an upgraded place in the pews. Eric is the last to take his new seat, where he'll sit a junior with a new perspective.
12:00 AM EST
August 18, 2010