Merit scholars ready to go where future will take them

College: Best of Baltimore City's Class of 2000 jump at chance to grow.

September 04, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The summer after high school and before college is like the last look at shore before crossing over from youth to young adulthood.

Three months ago, Simon Fitzgerald, Nadia Sirota and Elizabeth Armenti were kids finishing senior year. Now it's September, and like so many of their peers across the country, they are ready to pack the station wagon, take that plane, kiss their families goodbye, plunge into the next phase of life and see how they fare on their own. For all three, it is sure to be a challenging journey, but one for which all seem well-equipped.

For one thing, they are all academic achievers. Among the 4,370 graduates in the Baltimore City public high schools' Class of 2000, Simon, Nadia and Elizabeth were the only three to be named National Merit Scholarship finalists, placing them among the top 1percent of graduating seniors.

Perhaps more importantly, though, as these three young scholars move from adolescence to adulthood, they will carry with them another shared legacy: families with fierce commitments to both public schooling and broad educations for their children. Those legacies travel light; they don't take up room in a suitcase, but they are as important as anything else they are taking with them.

"In some ways, I feel very done with the high school experience," a matter-of-fact Nadia Sirota said in her art-laden family living room. At 17, she is already a distinctive musical talent, playing the viola with a luminous intensity in such august venues as Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall. Headed for Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan, she expresses awe at the thought of living in a place overlooking Lincoln Center - even if it is a 27th-floor dormitory room half the size of her comfortably cluttered bedroom at home.

Still, as a loud clock broke the silence in her family's North Baltimore penthouse apartment, she admitted: "This not being my home anymore will take some getting used to." In general, though, this School for the Arts graduate is ready to leave for New York with her father, Robert Sirota, the Peabody Institute director, and she knows it. She credits the School for the Arts for nurturing her musically and academically in advanced placement courses. "What you get for free from that school is absolutely amazing," she says.

Even as she spoke, Simon Fitzgerald was landing in his chosen destination: Havana, Cuba, where fellow Americans will be scarce. An 18-year-old who grew up in Mount Washington and attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Simon is one of a handful of American college students to go to the island to study this fall under the sponsorship of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. For all he knows, he may informally improve mutual understanding in the absence of diplomatic or trade relations between the United States and Cuba as a witness to the post-Elian Gonzalez era.

"I think I would learn more in Cuba in a year than most places in the U.S.," Simon said with a level gaze shortly before he left.

In an insight gained from his English class reading of James Joyce and Thomas Hardy, Simon summed up the experience ahead: "It's the hero quest. You know, I have to leave and get my own understanding."

That quest meant deferring enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was accepted as a freshman this fall. So instead of going Ivy League, Simon is going radically chic, attending the University of Havana. His parents, who traveled to Cuba on a medical exchange, had told him all about the country, firing his imagination.

"The revolution was amazing in Cuba, the land reforms," Simon said. But with things between his country and Cuba the way they are, he said, "All I have is propaganda on one side or the other."

With his political education in a left-leaning activist family, Simon might have been better suited to campus life in the 1960s. (How many guys his age have posters of Jimi Hendrix in their rooms?) But he's earned his own protest badge of valor: He got arrested and spent 50 hours in jail last month, during the Republican Convention in Philadelphia.

He says he was observing a protest and doing his best to avoid getting trampled by a horse ("I was afraid of getting kicked"), but the police on the street saw it differently. After being behind bars in a holding cell, he says, he eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct, without a chance to consult a lawyer. The judge resolved the matter with no penalty, and he came home again after a bruising coming-of-age experience.

At the sunset of summer, he said, "I've accepted I can't live here [at home] anymore."

Simon's friend, Elizabeth Armenti, also 18 and a Polytechnic graduate, is so ready to take her leave from her Roland Park home that there is no trace of anxiety or ambivalence in her voice.

"I'm definitely ready," she says. "Eighteen years is a long time."

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