A Diverse Sampling Of Talents: Local Students Step Out And Succeed
Stroll the hallways of Dare County’s three high schools and it doesn’t take long to encounter remarkable students. Bright, compassionate young people with a broad range of gifts, driven to impact their schools and communities, and wherever they eventually land. Nurtured by parents, teachers and their surroundings, they ask nothing more than an opportunity to display and grow their abilities. The following is just a sampling:
Alyse Stewart has doodled and drawn as far back as she can remember. She drew still life portraits as a youngster that earned her a display at a local art show at age 7. Fast forward less than a decade and at 16, the Manteo High sophomore has penned comic book art that has caught the attention of Marvel editors and artists.
Her parents, Kathryn and Ben Stewart, own the Silver Bonsai Gallery, and she’s been surrounded by art her entire life.
“I knew from a very early age that I was going to be an artist,” Stewart said. “I just didn’t know what kind of art. For a while, I thought I was going to be a jeweler, but I gravitated toward the illustrative side.”
Stewart also plays the piano and cello, and she has performed in school theater productions such as The Addams Family and Phantom of the Opera.
“The coolest thing about Alyse is that she’s so generous,” said theater teacher Connie Rose, who also owns Dockside Theater and has known Stewart since she was young. “She can sing, she can dance, she can act, she can play music, she’s an accomplished artist. But for all that she does, she goes out of her way to make everything feel like a team effort.”
Stewart had seen comic books, but never delved into them. When her dad gave her his boyhood comic book collection at age 10, she was hooked.
“I was so fascinated by the art and the storytelling behind it,” Stewart said. “I decided this is what I want to do.”
Stewart’s relationship with Marvel began when the family took a Comic Con cruise in January of 2017 and had the opportunity to meet several of the company’s artists and executives. They thought enough of her sketchbook that they invited her to the New York Comic Con in October. One editor she met in New York sends her story scripts, and she sends back sketches. She described the relationship as akin to an internship, and she hopes that getting her foot in the door will eventually lead to work.
However, there’s still two more years of high school, classes, theater productions and honing and improving her artistic skills.
“Because my parents are artists, I’ve never thought of it as a hobby,” she said. “It’s what I want to do.”
THE TRUTH SEEKER
Carlos Escobar likes to be informed. He is naturally curious, asking questions and researching topics of interest. He enjoys writing and telling stories. When a friend coaxed him to dive into current events, he thought that journalism would be a worthy pursuit.
“Nowadays, it’s so difficult to figure out what’s true and what’s not,” Escobar said, “and if it’s difficult for me, who’s actually interested, I’m thinking that there are others my age who are having the same problem. That will be a problem for the future of the country, because we are the future. I thought maybe that me going into that field, I could bridge that gap between youth and providing information.”
Escobar, a senior at Cape Hatteras Secondary School, arrived on Hatteras Island with his mother from Mexico at age 6, unable to speak a word of English. He said that it wasn’t until third grade that he began to feel comfortable enough to communicate in the language. Entering his final semester of high school, he carried a 4.2 GPA, boosted by honors classes in English.
“He learned English very quickly because he’s so bright,” said Karla Jarvis, a guidance counselor at the school who has known Escobar and worked with him since he arrived. “It’s kind of ironic that writing English is his medium of expression, given how he started.”
Escobar used to communicate by drawing pictures, and he has contributed drawings to local murals and assisted art teachers with projects and fund-raising. He also tutors students in Spanish.
“I’m more interested in pursuing the truth,” Escobar said, “rather than just believing what people tell me.”
First Flight High senior Suzanne Harrison’s plate is so full that one might conclude that either a) she has a clone, or b) she doesn’t sleep.
Harrison, 17, is a fixture in the school’s theater program, where she has had leading or supporting roles in Grease, Pride and Prejudice, and the Holocaust-themed play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. She is vice president of the drama club and news editor and staff writer at the school paper, Nighthawk News.
She is a member of Model UN and plays an active role in the school’s anti-bullying club, while maintaining a 3.9 GPA. She is part of the youth vestry at her church, helping to attract other young people. She has played the piano for 10 years and counseled young players in piano camps.
“Suzanne is so genuine and just a warm person,” said English teacher Hunter Will. “She’s careful, when we have discussions, not to hurt others. She takes their feelings into consideration. She’s very understanding, but not to the point where she doesn’t have her own personality, her own opinions.”
The oldest of three, Harrison said that she gets her stubbornness and determination from her father, local attorney Peebles Harrison. Her sense of humor and organizational skills come from her mother, Avery Harrison, a former wedding planner who works for the Outer Banks Community Foundation.
Harrison said she leans toward a career in either education or journalism and communication. She eagerly awaits college, where she might build in extra time to sleep or simply chill. But don’t count on it.
“I enjoy all the things that I do, and I wouldn’t change my crazy schedule for anything,” Harrison said. “Everything I’ve done through high school has taught me so many different lessons that I could not learn in a classroom.
I appreciate my teachers, and I’ve had wonderful teachers, but everything I do, extracurricular-wise, has taught me so much, as well.”
When Everett Meekins heard his name called to participate in a North Carolina regional mathematics competition as a seventh grader, he thought: I might be good at this. When he later qualified for the state competition, he thought: I might be even better.
Five years later, the combination of innate ability, unrelenting curiosity and thousands of hours of work have put him in rare company. The Manteo High School senior is one of the most gifted and accomplished mathematics students to come through the system.
“It’s too early to tell, but I can see him getting a Ph.D. and doing exceptional things,” said longtime Manteo math teacher Frank Vrablic, who Meekins said he considers a mentor. “He’s unique, and the thing about him is, he’s so down to earth.”
Meekins blitzed through Manteo’s advanced math and science classes, and carried a stratospheric 4.9167 GPA into his final semester. He now seeks challenges through college level and outside classes and competitions. As a freshman, he completed the year-long Math 1 course in a semester. He took BC Calculus as a sophomore, in a room full of upperclassmen, and aced the exam.
Meekins took advanced college-level calculus and computational physics through the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) and attended the N.C. Governor’s School for Mathematics. He also takes a class through N.C. State in which he is the only student. It’s an extraordinary situation for both Meekins and State’s math department, which was willing to accommodate him due to his potential and to the distance required to take the course in person.
Meekins tutors younger math students and helps prepare them for math competitions. He also runs track and cross country for Manteo, and he plays first alto sax in the school jazz band. Music is not only a diversion, but he sees it as a complement to his mathematics work. Both require a solid foundation before one can experiment and improvise.
“I think what I need to do with music is what I’m doing with math right now,” Meekins said. “In mathematics, when you first start there doesn’t seem to be too much freedom, but once you really start looking at [problems], that’s when it becomes more freeing. There are many ways to look at it, there’s many things you can do. It’s like there’s tons of ways to play a solo in the same 12 bars. Perhaps that’s why I like both. I do enjoy that thought process.”
Susanna Couch has a broad range of interests that include art, culture, language and music. For her, they are a gateway.
Couch, a senior at Cape Hatteras Secondary School, speaks precisely and passionately about social justice and women’s rights. She and a couple of friends organized a day of silence at the school, to raise awareness and to combat bullying. She described herself as “an avid signer of petitions.”
Couch completed Honors French classes and aims to learn at least one more language. Captivated by a school trip to several European countries last year, she eagerly awaits another one this spring. She wants to travel, not merely to sightsee, but to experience other cultures and societies.
“I think diversity is important, not only for political conversations, but for small ones,” she said. “I think if we understand each other, we’re more likely to get along.”
Couch, who carried a 4.26 GPA into her last semester, supplements her schedule with music and dance. Her mother told her that she sang before she talked, and she continues to sing at Buxton United Methodist Church. Couch played the piano as a youngster and has played the violin since age 10, as well as took up the double bass a couple of years ago and plays regularly. She travels to Nags Head twice a week for dance classes.
Couch, who often goes by her middle name “Rae,” has an hour-long show on Hatteras Radio on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. Called Alternative Gold Mine, Couch spins a varied mix of New Wave, Goth rock and Indie bands throughout the hour.
Couch plans to major in English, with a minor in art history in college. Presently, she would like to become an entertainment journalist and write about art, music, fashion and literature, and those who set trends.
“I can be kind of shy,” she said, “and I would like to talk to people about cultural movements.”
Of course, Miles Kasten embraced music. His father played saxophone in school and later in clubs. He was named for jazz giant Miles Davis, and his mother is an opera singer and voice coach.
Kasten’s tenor sax work with the First Flight High jazz and marching band, along with outside projects, was practically pre-ordained. But his work in school and community theater has provided a path for him to grow and flourish.
Kasten, a senior from Colington with a 3.76 GPA, has played Peter Pan, co-lead Danny Zuko in Grease,Tommy Djilas in Music Man, as well as characters in school productions of Pride and Prejudice, 9 to 5 and the Holocaust-themed play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
“It pushes me outside my comfort zone,” Kasten said of his theater experiences. “Some people will tell you to stick to things you’re comfortable with, but I think stepping outside your comfort zone is the best thing if you want to act and get better at it.”
Kasten has an expressive face and an outsized personality that’s inversely proportional to his 5-foot-5, 110-pound frame. He came to acting reluctantly, after a recommendation from his older sister, Amelia. He eventually welcomed the opportunity to play different characters, as well as the camaraderie within the theater community.
He devours movies in his spare time and would like to work in cinema, as a filmmaker, director or cinematographer.
“I have this problem where I feel like I have to prove something, I have to prove myself,” Kasten said. “Which is so stupid. I don’t know why I do it. But I’ve gotten better at stopping myself from doing it. In doing that, I try to prove people wrong and get better.” ♦
Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer living in Kill Devil Hills. Dave was a sports writer for 30 years at the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press prior to relocating the the Outer Banks.