"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever." —Mahatma Gandhi
Admittedly now, I was distracted a bit during my conversation with possibly the most put-together, smartest 18 year old I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.
The young man, Harsh (pronounced Hirsh and commonly mispronounced like it’s spelled) Patel, is the valedictorian at Mt. Juliet High School. I had the pleasure of making Patel’s acquaintance – I’m using $10 words on purpose here simply to feel adequate to the company I was keeping at the time – during the Valedictorian and Salutatorian Luncheon on Thursday.
Patel was with his father, Peter, as they sat down at the table for three I chose to conveniently stay out of the way while taking photos. They were certainly welcome since a one-sided intellectual conversation is better than no conversation at all.
The boy from Alabama in me quickly escaped as I noticed the Patels weren’t enjoying the lovely barbecue supplied by Sammy B’s, which also provided the locale for the day. Where I come from, something is completely wrong with someone who turns down some good ole’ Southern barbecue.
Turns out that wasn’t the case. For religious reasons, the Patels don’t eat meat because they’re Hindu. I was fascinated because, unless I didn’t know better, they were the first Hindus I had ever met.
As they ate their lettuce and tomato sandwiches, I took the opportunity to quiz the top student at Mt. Juliet High School. After all, I figured he was good at quizzes.
I found out he was born in Kenya, which rules him out from ever being president and gave us at least one thing in common.
He’s of Indian descent, and he and his family moved to Mt. Juliet in 2006 when his father got a job as an engineer at a construction company. Peter now works from home as the company’s financial advisor. Now there’s a workforce adaptation.
Patel holds a 4.62 grade-point average – which I didn’t think was possible on a four-point scale – apparently from taking all those Advanced Placement classes. Come to find out, he enjoyed AP chemistry much more than his current AP physics class. Oh, and he also made a 32 on his ACT.
Quick math problem for you: Transpose Patel’s ACT score and subtract two and you get my ACT score. In my defense, I only took the test once. That was all I needed to go to college.
He plans to head out to UCLA in the fall to study some over-my-head combination of engineering and medicine, something to do with regeneration. Actually, he said he was undecided at the moment, but he thought that work would interest him the most.
The difference is beer interested me the most in college. Thank goodness there’s not a major for beer nor was it an interest of Patel’s, best I could tell.
He’s also heading to UCLA sight unseen. It seems he applied to Vanderbilt University and was put on the waiting list. The waiting list? Really? Did you meet Harsh Patel, Vandy?
It’s no matter, because Patel told me he wants to experience as much as he can of the United States. Starting 3,000 miles away doesn’t seem like too broad of a start. This kid has a good head on his shoulders.
We talked about methods of studying, and how he likes to do this kind of intensive focus approach to hitting the books. We talked about California, and I bored him of my talk of my two trips there a couple of years ago for my nephews’ weddings.
But what struck me about him, along with the several other valedictorians and salutatorians in the room that day, was the level of pride and confidence each carried. It wasn’t boastful or cocky or arrogant. It was humble, almost like breathing a sigh of relief after a hard day’s work.
But it was more than that. Maybe they didn’t know where they were going or how they would get there. But it didn’t show. These guys and gals were already leaders.
I only have one bit of advice for our top-of-the-class scholars. Always remember home and how much of a difference you can make when you return. Too many times we lose our best and brightest to that somewhere else out there. We need you right back here in four, six or eight years to be leaders in this community just as you left your schools in that same role.
And as for Harsh Patel, I can only imagine my own son walking in your footsteps just a few years down the road. The problem is, you’ve already set the bar so very high.
Jared Felkins is The Democrat’s director of content. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @paperboyfelkins.