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Last season, Jillian Eckart was at the top of her game. Leading Gilmour Academy's varsity women's basketball team in scoring, steals and assists, the junior was named to the MAC-8 All-Conference first team.
With quick feet, a mean handle and a jumper that drops through the twine easier than the bounce in her blonde ponytail, Eckart's got game — and a coach's love for it.
On game day, the 17-year-old watches everything, from how she stretches to what she eats. "She is very intense all day," observes head coach Michael Kelley. "She knows exactly who we're playing, the strengths and weaknesses of her opponent and exactly what she can do to exploit those." After a game, she requests a copy of the tape to break down the game at home with her dad, and later with Coach Kelley.
Last year, Kelley nominated Eckart to play in the TourneySport USA summer classic in Oahu, Hawaii, an event that attracts the top high-school juniors from the United States and Canada. After being selected from a pool of more than 2,000 nominees, Eckart found sponsors to pick up the trip's $3,478 bill and got set to hit the hardwood in Hawaii.
But three weeks before she was to board the plane, Eckart encountered trouble in paradise. She dove for a loose ball during a local basketball tournament and took a knee to her side.
"I played for a couple minutes and then I couldn't breathe,"
says Eckart, who spices up her Gilmour school uniform with a pink backpack and four holes in each ear. She played in another game the following week, but when the pain persisted Eckart went to see a doctor. She was diagnosed with two broken bones in her back. The prescription was eight weeks without physical activity, meaning no basketball and no Baskin-Robbins, where she works year-round.
"I was very disappointed and shocked, too," says the Lyndhurst resident.
But she soon realized that things would've been worse if her injury had occurred during the regular season. "Now, I can look and I can get a lot of good out of it," she says.
Rather than vegging out until school started, Eckart attended the summer league's Tuesday and Thursday games to support her teammates. She even went to the Hawaii tournament, where she also watched from the sidelines. This year, she says she's psyched to be back on her feet shooting hoops and running track. She also volunteers as a Big Sister, student ambassador and Eucharistic minister for Gilmour's Communion services.
Eckart's list of college possibilities includes the College of Charleston, Clemson and Elon universities and a few other schools for basketball.
"Everyone thinks [private schools are] bad at sports, but we're not," says Eckart. If you don't believe her, man up and she'll stick a jumper in your eye.
Allison Salewski, Hathaway Brown
Allison Salewski enjoys a good "Harry Potter" flick, but take her to a lecture on the Golden Ratio and her brown eyes light up just the same.
Allison is 17 years old, with chestnut hair and an infectious laugh. Her friends include classmates at Hathaway Brown, a middle-aged neighbor with whom she has tea and a 60-something Portuguese woman who works as a maid in France. She trades fashion tips with her school's admissions officer and can hold her own at a dinner party full of doctors.
"I'm kind of nerdy, but I like it that way," she says on more than one occasion.
Allison has never been your typical kid. When she was born, her brother and sister were already in high school, her father's career as a doctor was just taking off and her mother was a medical student. She was raised in a world full of grown-ups, being carted from one medical function to the next. But it was a decision her brother, Tony, made that really set Allison's life on its current path.
When Allison was a fourth-grader at Independence Primary School, Tony wanted to transfer from public high school to University School in Hunting Valley for his junior and senior years. Their older sister, Valerie, had always attended public schools.
"Kids were telling him, 'Don't answer any more questions in class and make us look bad.' He wanted out of that environment," explains Allison's father, Jonathan, president of Parma Anesthesia Associates and director of Parma Community General Hospital's Pain Control Rehabilitation Centers. Pleased with the smaller class sizes, reduced distractions and greater emphasis on learning at University School, the Salewskis enrolled Allison in private school the following year.
When she came to Hathaway Brown in fifth grade, Allison was painfully shy.
"I just had a really hard time adjusting. I didn't like change," she recalls. There were plenty of tears and phone calls to her mother, Carol, as Allison struggled to make new friends. "I hadn't found my spot yet. It was me, not them," she says.
Because of her parents' hectic schedules, the fifth-grader came straight home from school, keeping her out of extracurricular activities but fueling her studies.
"If you can't stay after school for any of the sports things, you're going to study more," says Carol, a retired internal physician.
Once things calmed down at home, Allison's parents and teachers prodded her to join student council, choir and other activities. Now, she can't imagine leaving.
"Not to sound idealistic, but I personally wouldn't go anywhere else," Allison says. "I couldn't thrive in a place that wasn't this intense. I'd get really bored."
It's May, and Allison is in the final days of her junior year. As usual, she awoke this morning at exactly 6:08 a.m. and hopped into her Mercedes ML320 to make the 40-minute commute from Independence to Shaker Heights, arriving at school with time to spare. Allison strolls through the hallways with ballerina-like posture and a canvas bag heavy with books draped over one shoulder. In between classes, she stops once to scribble a note to her best friend and again to chat up her French teacher en franÃ§ais.
Singing has evolved into one of Allison's two official passions, so she's particularly bummed to learn that today's choir rehearsal has been canceled. The girl who was once too shy to speak in front of a crowd now finds it "exhilarating" to belt out high notes in Hathaway Brown's elite a cappella choir, Bravura. Allison, whose musical tastes range from classical to rap, recently garnered the highest rating in an Ohio Music Educators Association singing competition.
With choir practice off, Allison is down but not out. She still has passion No. 2, medical research, to keep herself occupied. After lunch, she heads for the office of Patty Hunt, the school's student research program director. The two review Allison's success at The Cleveland Clinic, where she's been conducting after-school research on chronic-pain rehabilitation all year. In February, Allison was the only high-school student to present her findings at the International Conference on Pain and Chemical Dependency in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"I'm a data person," says Allison, who's considering a career in medical research or math. "I'm kind of artsy and kind of sciency. I spread myself over both."
She also spreads herself over four hours of homework each night in order to maintain her A/B average, and she teaches Sunday school at church.
"We're inspired by girls like Allison," says William Christ, Allison's mentor and head of school at Hathaway Brown. "We look at them and think, I couldn't carry her bookbag. That is an amazing human being."
Perhaps you could say the same thing about every member of the Salewski family. Jonathan and Carol, both products of public schools, started out with $500 to their name and wound up as doctors. Brother Tony, 28, attends Harvard Business School and 32-year-old sister Valerie makes six figures as senior marketing manager for the New York-based hair-product company Bumble and bumble.
"My parents don't really have to restrict me or impose their goals on me because I've always felt a little bit of pressure just from myself and others' expectations, even though they've never voiced them to me," Allison says.
If the pressure of living up to the world's expectations is getting to her, she doesn't show it. Always poised and articulate, she says her need to stay busy makes Hathaway Brown "a good fit." When she is in need of some R&R, she retreats to a park after school.
Although Carol says she's never seen her daughter looking too stressed-out, she believes the girl puts too much pressure on herself.
"She's got to live up to her reputation of being a good student," Carol says. "She doesn't want to disappoint people. She doesn't want to disappoint her teachers."
In June, Allison raises the bar for herself by embarking on a two-week cultural exchange to France. She and several classmates each live with a different family outside of Paris. This time, there are no familiar faces, no tried-and-true formula for success.
"You can't come back home," Jonathan notes during his daughter's absence. "That's probably a real blow to her in a sense because, all of a sudden, there's no way out of here."
Life in France gets off to a shaky start. Allison, who is a wordsmith at home, struggles to express herself using her level-four French. "It's hard to talk, but I'm faring pretty well so far," she admits in an early journal entry. "[My host family] said that they were impressed, so at least I'll make it."
A few days later, after a tour of Paris with her host family and dinner near the Louvre, she's less sure. "M. Rossi spoke to me the entire time in French about all the history," she writes in her journal. "That pushed me over the edge — it was like having a whole history course being taught in four hours without any questions allowed. I guess I know Paris' whole history and I heard it all in French. Phew!"
But things soon turn around. With each passing day, Allison's French improves. She bonds with the family's Portuguese maid over their common struggles with the language, sneaking to help her wash dishes so the two can converse in their pidgin French.
"It's different, because you wake up in the morning and you've been dreaming in English, and then you have to speak French," Allison says during an interview halfway through the trip. But she's also turned a corner with her host family and her language struggles.
Frequent phone calls from her parents and siblings also help. She clings to her brother's advice. "He said that the times when you learn the most are the times when you're kind of lonely and you don't have many friends around," Allison says. "I know being lonely now will pay off later."
With less than a week left in her stay, Allison visits the MusÃ©e National Picasso and isn't worried about the language at all. ("My brain just feels overworked when trying to analyze his paintings," she writes.) After a birthday party at an amusement park, she even quizzes her host family's daughter, Eugenie, on dates for her history exam. "It's amazing how it's not as stressful to have conversations and talks like that in French," she writes.
Give her credit, Allison even finds a bonne face to accidentally deleting all the digital photos from her trip the night before her departure. She takes a final tour of the city with her "second mom" — just as she did on the first day — to retake pictures of the main attractions. "I like it," she writes. "It's like a finalizing action to close the book."
It's August now. Having emerged from France unscathed, Allison says she's learned a lot about herself on the trip. The rest of the summer is spent visiting relatives in Florida and tweaking her research paper for publication in a medical journal. She also goes on a whirlwind college tour with her brother, visiting 11 schools in five days.
Though her original college criteria included "an old-fashioned school with brick," a singing club and "people who want to learn because they really like going to school," she's made some cuts. Williams College is off the list because it's too rural. Johns Hopkins gets the ax because it's "too intense and not in a great neighborhood."
And there are no all-girls colleges on Allison's list. Having spent seven years living 40 minutes away from her school's single-sex social scene, she's ready for a change. But if Allison is going to get into her "reach schools," she won't be able to take it easy this year.
"I realize now how much work I'm going to have to do," she says. "Before, I had thought that there was a total formula for this, and after going to all these college meetings, I realize that I'm my own advocate. I'm going to have to work really hard."
Mike Dinard, Padua Franciscan High School
Ask students at Padua Franciscan High School in Parma to describe Mike Dinard and this is what you'll get:
"Mr. Perfect. Is there anything wrong with him?"
"No, I haven't found anything yet."
Not that Mr. Perfect brings paper to class, but it works for him.
He holds the senior class's second-highest grade-point average, breezed through last year's standardized tests, scoring 1390 out of 1600 on the SAT and 30 out of 36 on the ACT, and bowled over pigskin opponents as Padua's star running back and linebacker.
As of this summer, the 6-foot-1-1/2-inch and 222-pound 17-year-old can chalk up another score: a full football scholarship to Northwestern University.
"I'm kind of lucky, because the college search is over for me. I don't have to apply to 10,000 schools," says Dinard. "Football gave me that."
By the end of his junior year, Dinard's daily routine included a stop at the student mailboxes to check for college recruitment mail. Every school in the Ivy League was pining for him.
The kid works hard for his 4-plus GPA, but don't expect to see him scrambling to get to class when the bell rings. And when students get worked up about exams, it's Dinard who tells them, "You guys, just relax."
Still, he feels pressure to succeed from what he calls "the Padua aura of excellence": the high expectations, a tough grading scale and his tacit duty to remain No. 2 in the class. More importantly, Dinard wants to do himself and his family proud. His father, a 1981 graduate of Padua, works as an air-traffic controller at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. His mother is an account clerk for Parma City Schools.
"I've been showered with nothing but praise since getting the scholarship for Northwestern. That's all nice and dandy, but I'm already thinking about all the work I'm going to have to do," says the Parma resident who's considering a major in medicine or engineering.
He isn't crazy about the lofty nicknames, either.
"There's something not cool about people calling you that. It's almost like they're mocking you," says Dinard, who didn't realize the cafeteria lady had been giving him extra french fries all year until his friends brought it to his attention. But Dinard is sure there's no real resentment from his classmates. "I think they're trying to be funny," he says.
Dinard's sister, Jamie, who is a Padua sophomore this year, grapples with the "Mr. Perfect" reputation, too. But she's comfortable she can withstand any extra pressure to measure up to her big brother. "She's a little more strong-willed than I am," Dinard says.
She may also have a sharper tongue. "He comes off real cool to everyone, but he really is a big nerd. At home, he's just weird," Jamie says. "He's always on the computer. ... He reads a lot of books. A lot of books."
Maureen Clark, St. Joseph's Academy
The halls of Cleveland's St. Joseph Academy are divinely silent as Maureen Clark leads the school in morning prayer over the PA system. When she finishes, familiar words echo down the corridor as the other students join her in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Clark is the type of girl who continues to work on her Latin assignment even after most of her peers and the teacher have drifted shamelessly off topic. She participates in campus ministry at St. Joe's and a handful of other activities at her church. During her free period, she tutors a classmate in math.
It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Clark spent her summer balancing baby-sitting jobs with a gig volunteering for Youth Challenge, an organization that offers day camps for children with physical disabilities.
"They came and talked to our [school] and asked for volunteers," says Clark, 17, of Rocky River. That was all it took for her to sign on for a summer of arts and crafts, music therapy and swimming with 4- to 10-year-olds.
"She has a strong sense of community and a strong sense of the world outside of herself," says her guidance counselor, Susan Jensen, who belongs to the same parish as Clark. "She has an incredible ability to impact people around her that never comes across as being deliberate or planned, but it's just who she is."
Not that Clark drifts through life, letting her emotions dictate her every move. Before school let out in June, the dark-haired, fair-skinned girl was already turning pages on her summer reading for the fall session. By early July, she'd tackled three of the six books on the list. Around that time, she found out she had the second-highest grade-point average in her class.
"I worked hard for it, but I usually don't get too stressed about it," says Clark, who is also senior class vice president and involved in too many extracurricular activities to mention. "It's a friendly, good competition."
If she could change anything about her school, it'd be the lunch menu (she'd add more salads and fresh fruit). All of the rules at St. Joe's are reasonable, she says, even the requisite plaid skirts and white polo shirts. By the end of a sweltering June school day, Clark is one of the few students whose shirt hasn't come untucked. Which raises the question, Does this girl ever color outside the lines?
"I think she has a wild side to her that she doesn't let people see most of the time. She's actually very funny," says Clare Brewka, Clark's good friend and senior class president. "She actually comes up with really crazy ideas sometimes, but she never really goes through with them."
This summer, Clark did follow through with one idea that had been on her mind for a while: getting her driver's license before her younger brother, a junior at St. Edward High School, began driving.
Sven David Udekwu, Western Reserve Academy
Sven David Udekwu has an affinity for collecting "Star Wars" and "Gargoyles" action figures, but you'd never know it from his crisp button-down shirt and snappy green-and-gray striped tie. Even when he's not sporting his school uniform, his mother says the 18-year-old is prone to dressing beyond his years.
"David has always been grown. David was born old," says Catherine Udekwu, a physician. "I don't think he's the typical teen-ager."
Then again, most teen-agers haven't had a life like his. A lanky, copper-skinned young man, Udekwu was born in the United States and spent his childhood in southeast Nigeria. He then joined his mother in Pittsburgh for middle school before landing at Hudson's Western Reserve Academy, where he's now a senior. His father, an architect, lives in Nigeria.
Udekwu notices subtle differences between himself and his American-bred peers. "They grow up with everything, really, that they need in life. In other parts of the world, like in Nigeria, we didn't have everything," he says. "We didn't have running water."
Udekwu, who is quiet during class but laughs easily, hated his first few weeks on WRA's college-like campus of brick buildings. Eventually, though, he found his niche. He's a dormitory prefect, a role his mom says is a natural fit after years of bossing around his three younger siblings. He's also student-body president, in charge of organizing weekend activities for his fellow boarding students.
"Some kids live five minutes away and they never go home," says Udekwu, a drop of Nigeria flavoring his accent. He sees his family about twice a year, not counting school vacations. "Being a boarder definitely teaches you independence."
This summer, Udekwu and several other WRA students traveled to England as a part of the academy's exchange program. He lived with a host family and took classes near London.
How did he go from being a miserable incoming freshman to an independent, globetrotting senior? "I think [the students] are comfortable. I think they feel secure," Catherine says. "Adolescents go home for safety, but if they have the safety at school, then there's no need."
As class president, Udekwu has a hand in deciding how to execute the senior prank, which traditionally involves borrowing the headmaster's yellow Mustang convertible for an evening each spring.
"I'm thinking of doing it maybe earlier in the year, just to throw the teachers off a little bit," says Udekwu, who is considering a career in law. "I don't think they really expect me to do anything too drastic as far as a prank goes."