Mei Li Margaret Zuber will process through a high-school rite of passage on Saturday: Put on her cap and gown, line up with the 320 seniors in her class and receive her diploma from Soddy-Daisy High School.
A few short years ago, such an accomplishment might have been questionable. By second grade, her teachers had labeled Mei Li "a slow learner," says her mother, and the schoolwork she brought home was scored with red.
"Nobody had taken the time to teach me to read, so it looked like a bunch of squiggles. I understood because I could hear what they were saying," says the graduating senior.
But that child, who couldn't read in elementary school, scored a perfect 36 on the reading portion of the ACT college admissions test this year. She is ranked 20th in her class and maintains a 3.9 grade-point average. Mei Li has taken all 10 honors and all five Advanced Placement classes offered at SDHS, and has only made two Bs since eighth grade.
"On occasion, we'll have a student ace one part of the ACT, but it's pretty rare," says Soddy-Daisy's Public Education Foundation college adviser, Cindy Adamz.
According to ACT Inc., less than 0.1 percent of more than 1 million students taking the college prep test each year earn a perfect 36 on a section. Not only did Mei Li ace the reading portion, but she scored a 35 in science and a 34 in English. She logged a respectable 28 in math.
The intervention of a caring foster mother, Nancy Zuber, who later adopted Mei Li, ignited a love for reading. Mei Li (pronounced May Lee) was removed from her home for neglect and abuse at age 6 and put into foster care at the Children's Home Chambliss Shelter, says Zuber, a guidance counselor at Soddy-Daisy High School.
"I was already a foster parent. I volunteered at the Chambliss Shelter and that's where I met Mei Li, so she got to know me before she came home with me," explains Zuber.
She brought the then-6-year-old home for a visit, and she hasn't left since.
"She'd been with me two weeks when she came up to me and said, 'You know, on the day I was born, I think God was reading the newspaper and one of the elves shoved me down the wrong shoot and I ended up with the wrong family. But I'm in the right family now!' and then she just danced away. It took my breath away," Zuber recalls.
After fostering Mei Li, Zuber made the decision to adopt her. At age 52, a single mother of a grown son, she was making the commitment to raise a 7-year-old.
"I told her 'I'll be 64 when you go to college,'" she laughs.
The mom says the pair read voraciously, "but I couldn't understand why she would confuse 'the' with 'a,'" she says.
The aha moment came during a cookout, she says. Mei Li overheard a friend tell a lengthy, involved story, then came in the house and repeated the story to her mom, word for word. That was the moment Nancy realized her daughter had a photographic memory and was memorizing, not reading.
"That night, I gave her a book she'd never seen before and asked her to read it to me. She answered she wanted me to read it first, and I said, 'No, you.'"
This give-and-take continued until Mei Li admitted she couldn't read.
"It scared me," admits Zuber. "I didn't know what to do, so I got her a tutor."
Mei Li admits the first couple of months with the tutor were trying - both for her and the tutor.
"It was hard! I didn't want to do it. I would try to crawl away under the table. I'd hide in the bathroom. My tutor would say, 'We'll just sit here until we finish.' But after a couple of months I noticed I could read on my own," she says.
Within two years, Mei Li jumped from the 16th percentile in reading to the 98th percentile. She still holds the record at Loftis Middle School for the most books read by a student, says her mother.
The soft-spoken teen says that only a few of her closest friends know about the challenges she overcame to succeed.
Soddy-Daisy's Adamz says "the thing I love most about Mei Li is that she gives back.
"She tutors students here at school. I think she has a certain empathy for students who struggle because she went through that."
The teen plays saxophone in the Soddy-Daisy band, is a member of the Beta Club and National Honor Society. She was recently named by the American Lung Association in Tennessee as one of four Young Women of Distinction.
She juggles her school activities with volunteering as a camp counselor at the Chattanooga Nature Center, and serving on the teen advisory committee for the Chattanooga Public Library.
Mei Li says she plans to major in biology this fall at East Tennessee State University, where she has been accepted in the honors program. Her career goal is to become a physical therapist or pediatric physical therapist.
Until then, Mei Li has been tutoring two neighborhood children in English whose parents are immigrants from Guatemala.
"I have this connection with children and I think I would like to work with kids one day," she says.
Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.