Taylor Batten

30 ways to have faith in future

Mallory Alman honored her grandfather, a NASA engineer with both a silly and serious side, by wearing his fish hat.
Mallory Alman honored her grandfather, a NASA engineer with both a silly and serious side, by wearing his fish hat. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Sometimes I worry about this country’s future. I mean, look at kids today. Staring at their phones, mouths agape. Rifling selfies back and forth on Snapchat is their idea of dialogue. They don’t read the paper, they don’t know history, they get by in school through memorization more than problem-solving.

This is the generation that is going to lead America against a rising China, India and the rest of the world? As the teens and tweens would text: SMH (shaking my head).

Unless: That’s all wrong. This week, along came 30 kids to blow that idea away. I wish you could have talked with them. They give new hope that the future will be led by adults who are smart, caring, engaged and selfless.

For 60 years, the Charlotte News and then the Charlotte Observer have been honoring some of the region’s most accomplished and promising high school seniors. They are nominated by their schools based on their academic achievements, community service, leadership, character and extracurricular activities.

The Observer chose 30 finalists from 144 entries. Those 30 students met with two panels of judges at the Observer on Thursday. Ten winners will be announced in coming weeks; each receives a $1,000 scholarship.

I was one of the judges. Over seven hours, we had the joy of getting to know student after student with passion and a vision for their futures. Each one shook our hands, looked us in the eye and told us their stories – what they’ve done and what they hope to do. Every single one of them impressed us with poise and maturity, focus and ambition.

Among the 30 finalists:

Marlena Heracklis has a brother who is autistic and she was moved to start working with special-needs kids and young adults. She teaches them dance. She mentors them at a non-profit called Holy Angels. And she spearheaded a “Night to Shine” prom for them, overseeing 200 volunteers and hosting 100 guests. The valedictorian of her class at Forestview High School in Gastonia, Marlena plans to attend Clemson and become a nurse.

Hannah Archer, valedictorian at Lake Norman Charter, has won three individual state tennis championships. She helps underprivileged kids through the First Serve Foundation. As student body vice president, she started an initiative to end bullying. She shadows Novant doctors and researches micro-devices that she thinks can help reduce obesity.

Each student was as impressive as the last. Mallory Alman created a plastic out of kudzu. She will attend N.C. State on a Park Scholarship and wants to be a chemical engineer. Brandon Moore got a job at Food Lion to pay his own way to Europe. He tutors middle school students and plans to be a teacher. Kiristan Waters made her first solo flight at age 16 and has earned her pilot’s license.

Together, the students restored faith not only in young people, but in the schools and (underappreciated) teachers who have guided them.

The 30 scholars’ interests were wildly diverse. But they had this in common: All had accomplished great things, not out of a desire to pad their resume but motivated by a deep and authentic passion. They truly have me SMH in amazement.

Email: tbatten@