Gabrielle Thibault-Messier spoke only French when she arrived in Chattanooga 10 years ago from Quebec, Canada.
She was an 8-year-old in a new country, new school, new culture - and no way to communicate, unless her parents were nearby.
She was placed in an English as a Second Language class at Hixson Elementary School, but her instructor did not speak French.
The challenge of communicating that year was reflected in her grades, she recalls: "I failed all my third-grade year except for two Ds."
One week from today, May 14, Messier will give the valedictory speech for her class at Center for Creative Arts. The 18-year-old Canadian has maintained a 4.0 grade-point average, in addition to being an accomplished violinist.
School officials believe her to be the first valedictorian of a Hamilton County public school who is not a citizen of the United States, and are in the process of verifying this with the Hamilton County Department of Education.
"I love learning, and having that much a challenge, not understanding anything, motivated me," said the teen of mastering the English language. "My last quarter of fifth-grade I made all As."
"She's got that drive, that initiative to be the best at everything she does," said CCA Principal Deborah Smith.
"She studied when she didn't have to study because she was always trying to compensate for the fact she didn't speak English when she arrived. She knew from the beginning that she had to try harder than other students."
Messier is the daughter of Diane Thibault and Pierre Messier, whose jobs with Alstom Power brought them to Chattanooga.
She began studying violin in the fifth grade, prompting her transfer to Center for Creative Arts in the seventh grade. At the performing arts magnet school, she played in the chamber orchestra and string orchestra. The violinist is also a member of the CSO Youth Symphony.
Messier said her Canadian citizenship made tuition fees of dual enrollment in college classes prohibitive. To compensate, she took five Advanced Placement classes: history, English and environmental science as a junior; calculus and music theory as a senior.
"She took all the AP classes we offered," said Smith. "It is unusual for a student to take all five AP tests."
Messier said she doesn't plan to make a career in music. But her career goal requires equal dexterity in her hands.
"I want to be a neurosurgeon," she said.
"I'm fascinated by the brain; there's so much we don't know about it yet. My older sister learned she had multiple sclerosis at 21. She was such a role model to me, it got me interested in medicine, to discover something in it to help other people."
Although her parents will remain here, she plans to return to Canada to attend college at either the University of Toronto or the University of British Columbia.
"Gabrielle's the example that if you want something and are willing to work to get it, you'll achieve it," said Smith.