When seats were assigned in Anita Nall's algebra class at Towson High School, she ended up at the back of the room. It was weeks before the teacher, Rebecca Munn, got to know the brown-haired ninth-grader, "who always had her head down, working."
When Nall chose her own seat later in the year, she "picked one right smack in front," recalls Munn. Perhaps that's because math is Nall's favorite subject; perhaps it's because Nall isn't used to being at the back of a group.
Be it an algebra class or a swim team.
Last weekend, Nall, 14, swam the 200-meter breast stroke faster than any other American ever has, posting the second best time in history. She also won the 100-meter breast stroke competition at the Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Spring Nationals in Seattle, with the fourth best time ever.
And she gets A's in algebra, too.
Even though Nall has appeared on national television, been interviewed countless times and is now considered a top contender for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, she cruises the halls of Towson High largely unaffected.
She was late leaving biology, she explains, because the class is getting ready to dissect a fetal pig. "It's fun," says Nall. Now, it's on to P.E., where the subject is tennis.
"It's neat, it's a neat feeling" to be a champion swimmer, Nall says a few minutes later, straddling a bench in the girls' locker room. "My family really enjoys it."
With sparkling brown eyes and plenty of smiles, Nall seems to enjoy her success, too, though she certainly doesn't flaunt it. Many of the teachers and students at Towson High knew her as a conscientious and friendly student long before they knew her as a champion swimmer.
"You know how I found out [about Anita's swimming]?" asks Munn, casting a slightly chagrined glance at her student. "I was home watching the news, making dinner and I heard it." That was in December, when Nall won the 200-meter breast stroke at the U.S. Open in Indianapolis.
It was also just shortly after Nall had stopped by Munn's desk to say she would not be in class for a few days, and to ask what she would be missing.
"She's so modest. She's such a lady," says Munn.
Half of the school year had passed before Jack Andrulewicz discovered Nall's swimming prowess. But early on the veteran English teacher had noticed Nall's ability to help others. "Anita would go out of her way to clue new kids in," he says.
In fact, when Andrulewicz needed someone to help a disabled student who was falling behind in her classwork, he chose Nall. "Anita would sit with her and work with her. She has a certain sensitivity that you don't see in kids that age," he says.
Still, "she has a little girl personality. She gets excited."
When Nall and her friend, Kate Winternitz, another ninth-grader at Towson High, get together, they go to the mall, listen to music and just talk, but not necessarily about swimming.
Winternitz met Nall last year when they were both new to Dumbarton Junior High School. Winternitz had just moved here from upstate New York; Nall from Harrisburg, Pa. "It's good we found each other.
"We met in eighth-grade math class," says Winternitz, remembering Nall as "really friendly" from the beginning.
Several of Nall's teachers were lavish in their praise -- for her "bubbly" personality, for her fine study habits, for her good grades, for her maturity. "She's the type of student any teacher dreams of," says Munn.
"She's a big benefit to the school," adds Andrulewicz. "Medals or no medals."