As the school year came to a close at Marion Middle School in May 2008, most students were looking forward to summer vacation.
Eighth-graders Annie Whitaker, Beth Nesser, and Taylor Harms were looking much farther down the road — four years. All three had achieved a second consecutive year of straight-A grades, and they wondered how long they could keep it going.
“At the eighth grade promotion we said ‘Hey, we did it two years, let’s do it all four now,’” Nesser said.
“I think we all made a pact to be valedictorians,” Whitaker said.
Four years later, the girls have made good on their pledge. They will be recognized as co-valedictorians Sunday during Marion High School commencement.
“Looking back on it, it’s been six years we’ve kept straight A’s,” Nesser said. “Walking into our first day of our seventh grade year we were so shy and timid, and now we’re facing our last week of high school.”
While they share many similarities, they agreed their differences and how they complement each other are what have made their partnership work.
“Our strengths and weaknesses are different, and so I think that’s helped all three of us work together as a team,” Harms said. “My weakness is in science, and Annie is really good at that, so she helped me.”
The three read each other’s English compositions, offering feedback from their unique perspectives.
“We all write differently and our styles are different, so we could focus on what we’re good at, and then switch off to get better in the end,” Harms said.
“I think that’s why we can help each other, because we’re all different,” Nesser said.
Those differences aren’t only related to specific subjects, but in how each has approached learning and exams.
“I don’t really study until finals week — it comes easy to me. I retain a lot of what the teacher says,” Whitaker said.
“I’m very different from Annie. She can retain information very well, I can’t,” Taylor said. “When it comes to finals, they stress me out because I have to go back and look over everything. I take a million notes.”
“If it’s a class I have a specialty in, then I’m not too worried about it. I hardly ever studied for math tests. For science tests, I studied more,” Nesser said.
Nesser took some of the pressure off of finals by talking with teachers to determine what she needed to do to maintain an A in the class.
“What is the lowest possible grade I can get on the final?” Nesser said she would ask.
When asked if any of them had a specific teacher that helped to keep them on track for getting the A’s they needed, they all had the same answer — math and science teacher Gary Stuchlik.
Calculus, trigonometry, statistics, and physics are classes that prove to be difficult for many students. They said Stuchlik’s ability to make the coursework relevant, his passion for teaching and learning, and his encouragement at challenging times all helped them to be successful.
“He makes it so that we know why we will use it in real life and why we need to learn it,” Nesser said. “Especially when we wanted to give up, all those little comments, ‘You can’t do that, you need to keep going.’”
“You can tell he loves what he does, so it makes you want to get better,” Whitaker said.
Their school lockers, fittingly side by side, will be empty by the end of the week. They will share the title of valedictorian Sunday at graduation, and celebrate together at a joint party for family and friends.
Each will head off to a different college this fall. Their friendships will continue, but will change as they individually go off in pursuit of their own career goals.
“It’s weird not to be with each other and to not have that constant support,” Nesser said.
Whitaker will attend the University of Kansas, where she will enroll in a pre-physical therapy track that will prepare her to apply for doctoral programs in physical therapy, including the one at KU Medical Center in Kansas City.
Whitaker said her choice was influenced by the physical therapy she received at St. Luke Hospital for a knee injury her freshman year.
“I’ve actually been doing a work study there this year to see if I liked it,” Whitaker said.
Harms will pursue a degree in agricultural communication and public relations at Kansas State University.
“I really like leadership positions, and that goes with communications. I like working with people, so that’s where the public relations came from,” Taylor said.
Whitaker and Taylor said they welcome changes that come with attending major universities.
“I’m excited to meet new people and get out there. It’s like a fresh start, everything’s new,” Taylor said.
Whitaker agreed, and noted she’s looking forward to some anonymity after the high visibility students in small schools like MHS get.
“I’m kind of ready to be just a face in the crowd,” Whitaker said.
“This is where Annie and I really contrast,” Nesser said. Nesser is going to Tabor College to study for a career as a secondary math teacher.
“I liked when I went on Tabor’s campus that all the staff automatically recognized me without a name tag. I was blown away by that,” Nesser said.
“I’ve grown up knowing I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve always liked math and I like helping people in math,” Nesser said.
Baccalaureate ceremonies are scheduled for Saturday at 7 p.m. at Eastmoor United Methodist Church.
The valedictorians, as well as salutatorian Jessie Taylor and other honors students, will be recognized Sunday at commencement, which begins at 4 p.m. at USD 408 Sports and Aquatics Center.