Merit scholars ready to go where future will take them

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Elizabeth had to choose between the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. The choice was easier when Maryland offered her nearly a full scholarship, she says: "I felt I couldn't pass up the scholarship money," which totaled $11,800. It was that, or plan on spending $100,000 or so for an education at the University of Virginia. In any case, she adds, "I think I can be happy anywhere."

So she is going only 40 minutes down the road, which might seem "anti-climactic" next to destinations far from Baltimore like New York or Havana. More than Simon or Nadia, Elizabeth is a carefree teen-ager, spending the summer as a $7-an-hour lifeguard and sometimes going dancing with friends at night. "Having fun is pretty high on my list," she explains. "I like dancing."

At summer's end, she stayed out late at Bohager's College Night. A streak of rebelliousness surfaces when the subject of curfews comes up. "[My parents] never gave me as much freedom as I deserved," she complains. "Until I turned 18, I had to come home at 12."

Her father and stepmother, both teachers at City College High School, took her to College Park, where classes started this week. On the morning they left, Elizabeth told her brother David, 15, to wait upstairs while she went down to show them her newly acquired mark of independence: a yellow and red sun tattoo on her right shoulder blade.

While she says she gets along all right with her parents ("But we don't hang out"), Elizabeth was most wistful about the separation from her brother: "It's going to be so weird when my brother is not there in my room, there to talk to. I can't imagine it."

Then there's Simon. More than a classmate at Poly, he's the boyfriend she broke up with twice, most recently in March, and who remains a best friend. "I cried a lot" on the day he departed, she said. There would be no rides to school in the morning anymore. They hope to correspond via e-mail and letters once he gets settled in university housing.

She has mixed feelings about his being abroad- "I'm scared we won't be able to keep in touch"-but is sure she wasn't ready to have a serious relationship right now, on the brink of going away herself for the first time.

For such a young woman, Elizabeth seems more self-aware than most her age. Perhaps it's the collection of personal journals sitting on her shelf. Or perhaps it comes from losing her mother when she was a girl. Whatever the causes, Elizabeth clearly seems prepared, like the others, to have day-to-day control over her own life.

'Forward momentum'

Of the three, only Nadia Sirota knows exactly what she wants to do with her life: "Music all day at a conservatory, that's what needs to happen now ... and as much as I love my parents, I think it's time for me to leave."

She will bring to Juilliard a sense of having blossomed over the past year or two. "I feel forward momentum in terms of music. ... Things just sound so much better." As if to confirm that feeling, the all-female string quartet she played with won a national competition this year and recorded a Ravel piece to air on National Public Radio's classical music program, "From the Top," this month.

A lighter side of Nadia shows up on the same program: She actually sings a witty little number about the wonders of Krispy Kreme donuts. "Here I am waxing poetic about Krispy Kremes on NPR," she laughs as she plays the song on her computer's CD-ROM.

Nadia's identity in the adult work world is more defined than Simon's or Elizabeth's, which may be why she comes across as the most confident among them. She knows her reasons for choosing Juilliard over Oberlin College in Ohio, her parents' alma mater: "I really love the viola teacher at Juilliard, Heidi Castleman. She's revelatory.

"In a way," she adds, "I'm giving up the college experience. Then again, I'm getting New York City, so it's not so bad."

Elizabeth also played an instrument for years, reaching a level of playing a standard Beethoven piano sonata. The discipline of practice should serve her well in studying calculus, German, computer science and an honors seminar on Islamic economics, science and politics - "multitudes of new stuff," she says. Math and German might be her majors, but she doesn't really know yet what her future holds.

Simon might write or tape a reporter's letter from Cuba for WJHU-FM's "Marc Steiner Show" once he stops feeling like a tourist, he says. He has some curiosity about being a journalist and has read Hunter Thompson's books ("Aside from being a drugged-out nihilist, he was a pretty interesting political journalist," he says). As for a major, political science is a possibility. "I'll think about it when I get to Penn," he says.

While their futures may be uncertain, one thing is crystal clear about these young scholars: Their success was not an accident. The common denominator is their families' commitment to their educations, specifically in a public school setting.

"It's important for democracy that people aren't separated, so they can build bridges and break barriers," said Dr. Terrence T. Fitzgerald, Simon's father, a political activist who worships with the excommunicated priest Philip Berrigan. Simon's mother, Dr. Gwen Dubois, is Jewish, so their four children have a mixed religious heritage.

"College is an exciting unknown," said Fitzgerald of his son's plans. "So is a foreign country with a different language."

Victoria Sirota, an Episcopal priest and a musician, was just as staunch in her advocacy of public education: "That's the answer, getting to know lots of types of people in other social circumstances. You need to hear those voices, because your parents can't protect you. After her life experience, she's much better able to deal with whatever New York City throws at her."

Then she looked at her daughter with tender eyes.

"She's ready to go," she said, "but we may not be ready to let her go."

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