When 10-year-old Sarah Schoff bids farewell to her Dundalk elementary school tonight, the evening won't be complete without the story of how she got her favorite teacher to eat worms.
The tale won't be in the graduation speech presented by the precocious young lady, who is evidence of the search for bright students in Baltimore County's blue-collar neighborhoods. But it's likely to come up as Sarah -- chosen for a summer college program for the gifted and talented from across the nation -- prepares to leave Sandy Plains Elementary School.
Sarah came up with the worm-eating idea last year to encourage classmates to read books. The deal: for every 100 books read, teacher Brad Palmer would down a worm.
"I had to figure a plan that would get kids reading because they waste too much time watching television," Sarah said recently at her home in the Gray Haven section of Dundalk.
Her idea was a, gulp, resounding success. At school year's end, a cafeteria table was set with tablecloth and candles. A student read poetry. And because Sarah's classmates had read more than 500 books, Mr. Palmer deep-fried five plump night crawlers and ate them. As testimony to fair play, Sarah also ate a worm.
"Actually, worms are nutritious. I would never do anything to hurt Mr. Palmer because he has been such a positive influence in my life," said Sarah, who dedicated her graduation speech to the teacher.
For Sarah -- who rarely leaves home without a book -- another mission accomplished.
One of about 3,700 county students in the elementary gifted and talented program, Sarah, raised in Dundalk by a single parent, defies the typical profile of the gifted child. But no one doubts her intelligence, energy and imagination.
"Many gifted children can get caught up in perfectionism," said Regina Schwaab, coordinator of gifted and talented programs in Baltimore County.
Sarah is task-oriented and possesses above-average intelligence, but her greatest gifts are her creativity and perseverance.
Educators were not making a great effort three years ago to identify children with potential in the Dundalk-Essex areas, said Janie Day, instructional specialist of gifted and talented in southeast county.
"We are stretching that effort now, and Sarah was one of the gifted who rose above the crowd, she's such a delightful sponge," she said.
Her mother, Trish, a budget analyst for the federal government, said she never pushes her daughter to excel. "I want to be there every step of the way for her," Ms. Schoff said. She has raised Sarah and her 16-year-old son, Bobby, alone.
"Everything Sarah has accomplished comes from within her," said Mr. Palmer, a trucking executive-turned-teacher who has been on the Sandy Plains faculty for three years.
"Besides being wonderfully bright, she sets an example for other kids to follow," Mr. Palmer said. "Sarah isn't doing what she does for recognition or to please her teachers or mom. She's a child with a no-excuse attitude, with a tremendous thirst for knowledge."
Mr. Palmer nominated Sarah for the College of Notre Dame's Summer Hummers Program, for middle school students who possess outstanding potential. Sarah will attend a two-week course, "Short Story: History, Meaning and Writing." Fifty other students from as far as California and Arizona will study at the college, delving into math, the environment, theater, dance and Latin.
Mr. Palmer collected from a number of donors the $275 to pay for Sarah's course at Notre Dame.
For Sarah, life could not be better. She's proud of helping some of her classmates in their studies -- she tutored them after school and hopes to continue those jobs at Gen. John Stricker Middle School. Other school activities included playing the saxophone in the band and participating on the drill team, chorus and safety patrol.
As part of her high-octane lifestyle, Sarah also takes dance lessons, is a Girl Scout, bowls and handles infield duties for the Bear Creek Shamrocks softball team.
"Actually, Sarah is also a typical 10-year-old who fights with her brother, likes ham-and-cheese sandwiches and mint chocolate chip ice cream," Ms. Schoff said. "But it's go, go, go Monday through Saturday with Sarah, but I want the best for her, I want her to be happy."
And, it seems, Sarah is most content with her nose buried in a book.
"I don't like math, but I do well in it," she said. "But I love to read, and I never leave home without a book.
"Even when I bowl on Saturdays, I can read in between frames. I enjoy scary stories and mysteries the best. I also read the Dundalk Eagle and the daily newspaper because my uncle told me that was important to me."
She added, "My mom always supports me, but she never tells me I have to get an 'A'. Once last year I got a 'B,' and she told me I can't be perfect.
"I feel this way. I don't have to impress anybody but myself. I feel good inside when I complete my goal. I just congratulate myself inside.
"Oh, have I told you I want to attend Yale?"