As I walked out of the tunnel after York’s graduation ceremony, surrounded by my friends and carrying my diploma, I felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.

Watching my high school career come to a close took me back to the very beginning of my educational journey, long before I learned how to write an editorial or even how to do multiplication; yet, I had already begun facing prejudicial assumptions and expectations, along with the blowback that results from exceeding them. In my past three years of writing articles, I have shared my perspectives as a high school student, but today I write as a graduate, reflecting on 13 years of challenges that I have finally overcome.

I was only five when it started: I read at an advanced level, but rather than letting me explore the library and encouraging me to challenge myself, the school kept me restricted to a certain shelf of the library for over a year. My parents were told that I would have to come in privately before school to check out books at my level. The reason, according to the principal, was, “We can’t have the other kids see what she is reading.” The pattern continued when, after my parents asked how my reading skills were coming along, my first grade teacher responded that I would “have to learn how to deal with it” when I was not valedictorian. Why anyone, especially an educator, would make such determinations about a student at age six, I do not know. What I do know is that, despite their negativity, the class rank listed on my final transcript is indeed a number one.

I have a special place in my heart for the para-professional who told me, “You just need to slow down” when I outpaced and outscored several town names in my second grade class during weekly speed-reading exercises; as the new kid, I was not supposed to win. As someone who has never been a town name, I know what it feels like to be doubted, underestimated, and overlooked, but the beauty of being the underdog is having nothing to lose. I can certainly say that I have never been to a track meet where the visiting team’s athletes are coached to slow down to let the hometown runner win, and I often wonder why academics would be any different, but when I meet with this mentality, I am not one to shy away from the challenge.

I have always been a competitor, and as my grandfather would say, “Records are meant to be broken.” When I was not invited to Honors Night as a freshman despite being ranked number one in my class, I took the ACT to prove myself, earning a full-tuition scholarship to UNL at age 14. Still, I was not invited as a sophomore. It was not until my junior year, after I had become York’s first student to win a state championship in Microsoft Office and to teach an English Language Learner class, that I was finally acknowledged at the event. Had I not been a senior this year, even with National Merit Scholar standing, Presidential Scholar candidacy, and York’s first perfect ACT score, I would yet again have gone without an invitation.

In my last article, I wrote about high school stereotypes among peers; what I have experienced for the last 13 years is a direct result of this same, small-minded attitude that causes so much strife in America today, making assumptions based on outward characteristics and attempting to trap everyone in a cage of preconceived notions. As I visited the capitol and listened to Governor Ricketts recognizing me for my ACT score, I was relieved to know that, to some, it does not matter what my last name, ethnicity, or gender is, or what town I am from. Looking at the bigger picture made me realize that just because everyone is of equal value and created with equal rights does not mean that everyone is created with identical talents — otherwise, the world would be a rather boring place — but what abilities one is blessed with are out of human control, and it is not up to anyone but God to decide who the “right” person for a certain job, record, or achievement is.

This July, “independence” has taken a whole new meaning for me: Never again will I be told that I cannot read certain books, or that I need to slow down and let someone else win. Every challenge, every trial by fire, and every hit I have taken has simply served to make me stronger and better equipped to face tomorrow, and as the famous quote goes, “Adversity causes some to break and others to break records.” The bullies, doubters, and naysayers will, in their own words, “have to learn how to deal with it.”

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