Alex Brooks started studying Russian because he needed a language class and didn't want to take French.
Spanish class was filled, so the Friends School student settled for Russian.
"I was willing to take a risk with a new alphabet," said Brooks, a science fiction fan who was raised in Bangladesh.
He was awarded top honors last month in a Russian language and culture competition sponsored by the International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature. The grand prize: an all-expenses-paid trip to St. Petersburg for the Worldwide Festival of Russian Language, where he will participate in the finals of the competition.
Friends School students Ben Musachio, of Bellona-Gittings, and Dan Kannen, of Mount Washington, were also recognized, placing second and third respectively in the competition.
Brooks and Roby received their good news April 25, when Friends hosted a Russian delegation of educators and administrators, who were members of the international association, known as MAPRYAL. The delegation was in the Mid-Atlantic region to promote the teaching and learning of Russian in the U.S. and to participate in a joint U.S.-Russian symposium about teaching and learning Russian language in the two countries, said Heidi Blalock, a Friends spkeswoman.
Blalock said the American Councils of Teachers of Russian chose Friends as a host site for the delegation, based on the school's 57-year history of teaching students Russian language and culture.
The Russian delegates conducted the contest to assess the students' knowledge of Russian history, literature and music, engaged students in one-on-one conversations; watched Roby teach, and toured the campus with Friends students who were taking Russian classes.
Brook said he didn't even know there was a competition involved until he and Roby were announced as winners.
"We just thought it was teachers (from Russia) wanting to see our class," he said.
When the delegation announced in Russian that he would be getting a free trip, he thought he had misheard them, or that his Russian was failing him and he had misunderstood.
"It sounded ridiculous," he said. "Then, they said my name and that sounded even more ridiculous. It's still really hard to believe."
Brooks said he is still sketchy on details of the trip, including when it is and how long he will be staying. He said his understanding is that it will be sometime in 2014. Organizers could not be reached for comment.
The trip to Russia won't be Brooks' first. He said he has visited the city of Kazan under a State Department program called National Security Language Initiative for Youth, and took a class trip to St. Petersburg in March 2012.
"I would not say I'm fluent" in Russian, Brooks said. "I can carry on a conversation."
Winning the competition as he neared graduation "was a good way to end it," Brooks said. "I was actually insecure about my Russian."
Brooks, the son of a pediatrician and an attorney, attended a British school in Bangladesh until sixth grade, when the family returned to Baltimore and he enrolled at Friends.
Life in Baltimore was a culture shock for Brooks, who didn't play sports or listen to music much..
"It was a little troubling," he recalled. "I didn't understand American culture as well as I thought I did."
He has since adjusted to life in the U.S., even wrestling at Friends. He said he enjoys hip-hop and pop music.
News of the free trip to Russia comes at a busy time for Brooks, who is enrolling this fall at Haverford College, outside Philadelphia, where he hopes to major in Russian or International Studies. He said Haverford offers Russian studes through the Russian Department of Bryn Mawr College.
Although barely out of high school, Brooks already has a notion of what he would like to do professionally. He's not that interested in teaching Russian or being a translator, but that he might like to serve as a diplomat someday.
"I might like something like international relations," he said.
It's either that or be a science fiction writer.
"I have a story in my head already," he said.