In a Class of Their Own

Focus On Valedictorians

May 19, 2002|By Peter Jensen and Stephanie Shapiro | By Peter Jensen and Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Keep dreams alive, despite the detours

Elton Elizabeth Keith

Class of 1996

Patterson High School

Elton Elizabeth Keith didn't allow a major detour to prevent her from becoming the "triple threat" she has envisioned since childhood. Today, Keith, trained as a singer, dancer and actor, is continuously involved in local theater productions, while teaching music at two Baltimore elementary schools.

Keith's path to the stage took an unexpected turn after eighth grade. She had always assumed that she would attend the Baltimore School for the Arts. Her family and friends believed she would too.

But she was rejected by the school. "I was devastated," she says.

After she enrolled at Patterson High School, though, the Armistead Gardens resident quickly connected with teachers and staff who recognized her intellect.

Outside school, Keith still studied music and theater, often on scholarship, and performed in musicals at community theaters. Because her family didn't own a car, she and her mother reached every lesson and rehearsal by bus.

At Patterson, Keith's classmates "had no idea of who I really was," she says. To them, "I was the nerd. The smart one."

In her valedictory speech, Keith expressed hope that all in her class would reach their dreams.

It was a sentiment reflective of her own theatrical ambitions and belief that dreams shouldn't die just because life doesn't go as planned.

Keith, 23, never allowed her detour to interfere with her plans. She graduated from Western Maryland College in 2000 with a double major in musical theater and theater.

"The dream is to support myself off of performing," she says. "How do I get there? I haven't quite figured that out yet."

Robert Pannebaker

Class of 1998

Eastern Technical High School

'There is a reward for hard work'

When Robert Pannebaker was a high school freshman and started thinking about where life might take him, he envisioned a modest career as a plumber, working on heating and air conditioning systems.

But it was also his nature to apply himself, and get the best possible grades. His father runs heavy equipment at a shipyard; his mother is a cashier and switchboard operator. They taught their son plenty about hard work.

Still, it came as a bit of a shock when, in the middle of his senior year, he was handed his class rank. Despite a senior year B in Calculus III, he was top of his class at Eastern Technical High School in Essex with a 3.99 grade point average.

"My jaw hit the floor," says Pannebaker, 22, a 1998 graduate. "I knew I'd worked hard. It just wasn't something that had crossed my mind."

Gradually, a whole new world opened up to him. He entered the University of Maryland, College Park as an engineering student. Not long after that, he landed an internship at an aerospace company in Beltsville that designs thermal systems for spacecraft and satellites -- a different kind of heating and air conditioning system.

Pannebaker is scheduled to graduate next year with a degree in mechanical engineering. He hopes to eventually turn his aerospace job into a full-time career.

"What I learned from high school was that if you're going to do something, do it to the fullest and do it to the best you possibly can," he says. "There is a reward for hard work."

'How to have a more complete life'

Jennifer Abeloff

Class of 1990

Baltimore City College High School

In many ways, you could say Jennifer Abeloff was the classic overachiever who never deviated from her own relentlessly high standards. But in college, this high school valedictorian had the presence of mind to realize she needed a break to "breathe and figure out how to have a more complete life."

For Abeloff, attending City College High School "was an amazing experience in terms of academics, and exposure to so many different types of people and role models and teachers."

In her valedictory speech, she talked about how much she and her classmates "had gained from being part of the city schools." She also stressed the importance of giving back to the school, or to a similar institution.

At Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Abeloff began as a pre-med student, but soon realized she didn't love science enough "to push my way through it."

She took some time off. Friends and former teachers were shocked that Abeloff would allow herself to do that. "I was fairly proud of myself, to go against the grain of what was expected," she says.

Back at school, Abeloff majored in sociology. So much theory was fine, but she also wanted to "actually get involved [in social issues] and do something to try and change the status quo."

After receiving a master's degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis, Abeloff worked in San Francisco and then Philadelphia, where she provided therapy to emotionally disturbed children at home and in the schools. She had made good on her high school graduation resolution.

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