It's testing day
at Mount Washington School in North Baltimore, and kids in grades three through eight have just spent 90 minutes taking the Maryland Scholastic Achievement test, which the school system will, in large part, use to determine a child's educational progress and what track she should be on going forward.
Jaya Mandala is not concerned.
"Pfft," she says when asked if she's nervous about taking the MSA. "That was so easy."
The fifth grader, who's been going to Mount Washington since Pre-K, has always been a high achiever. Besides getting great grades, she's on the school soccer club and makes up contemporary and hip-hop dance routines with her friends. (She's never taken a class but says learns all she needs to know from watching
On top of all that, Mandala is a competitive gymnast who trains at Rebounders Gymnastics in Timonium. She started when she was 6 years old, and she's risen to level seven-impressive for a 10-year-old (she just turned 11, actually)-and travels around the region for meets. This year, she went to Texas to compete in the Alamo Classic, her first national meet.
"I did OK," says Mandala, who placed fifth in her level and division in both vault and the uneven bars, and ninth all-around. "I was nervous."
With her beaming smile and busy schedule, Mandala might seem like a typical happy-go-lucky kid-and she is. But she's been through more adversity than most of her classmates: Mandala was 5 years old when her mother, Lora Burgess, died in a motorcycle accident.
"I remember watching her dance," Mandala says of her mom, who was a midwife and an avid salsa dancer. After the accident, she says, "it was hard. I thought that no one was going to take care of me."
Burgess' sister Kimberly Min remembers watching Mandala cope in those months after the accident. "There was a lot of anger, a lot of uncertainty," she says, adding that Mandala started taking gymnastics classes not long after her mom died. "It was really great for her, giving her an outlet for all this energy."
These days, Mandala lives with her dad, Shariff Roberts, who is a Thai massage specialist and a sales representative for the Natural Market in Timonium, and her two brothers, ages 13 and 3. She also stays with her aunt sometimes. "It's just all boys over there," she says of her dad's house. "So it's harder."
As a result of dealing with tragedy at such a young age, "she's got a lot of maturity," says Min. "But she's got a great goofiness about her and that's helped her make a lot of friends-to accept people and to be accepted."