Cleveland High School graduates Brian Byerly and Breana Shields say the honor of being among the school's 18 "2018 Graduates of Distinction" allows for recognition of all the highest-performing students and tips a hat to the teachers who got them there.
This fall, Byerly is headed to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he plans to pursue a history degree en route to becoming a published historian, while Shields is bound for American University in Washington, D.C., to pursue a medical degree, majoring first in neuroscience en route to becoming a surgeon.
Counseling department coordinator Becky Guthrie said the scholarly pair are "great" examples of the Graduates of Distinction group.
"They are both very involved in the activities," Guthrie said via email.
As a group, "[t]hese graduates earn a 4.0 grade-point average, but they are also involved in clubs, sports and community activities," Guthrie said.
While many high schools traditionally honor a valedictorian and salutatorian, Cleveland High officials decided to honor all the students who achieve a 4.0 GPA, she said. The new approach came with a surprise.
"The Graduates of Distinction banquet was started about five or six years ago to recognize our students who are Raider Scholar honor graduates with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average," Guthrie said.
"The best thing that has come from this event is that these students recognize a teacher who has been influential to them," Guthrie said.
"We have had teachers recognized from the kindergarten level, elementary, middle and, of course, the high school [level]," Guthrie said. "Hearing the students read their letters to their influential teacher is the highlight of the event each year."
Shields, who toured American University in April and will attend freshman orientation in July, has been a competitive achiever since her early school years, she said.
Motivation for her is innate.
"I've always been a curious individual and always enjoyed learning. So learning and going to school was never a burden to me," she said. "It was always something I enjoyed."
The teacher she chose to speak about at this year's Graduates of Distinction event was her soccer coach, Miles Christian.
All her teachers "obviously contributed to my success, but my soccer coach taught me things that you don't really learn in the classroom," Shields said. "He taught me mental fortitude when coming across an obstacle, and I admired him because of his work ethic."
However, throughout her academic career so far, "the people who motivated me most [were] my teachers because they saw something, they saw the potential in me to be, like, great, I guess," Shields said with an embarrassed laugh.
She said she just realized her proudest accomplishment: being accepted to the very selective American University, in the nation's capital.
"This year, the acceptance rate dropped down to 13 percent, and it's ranked very high," Shields said. "For my major, I chose neuroscience."
She believes that major will position her well for internships and volunteer opportunities that will help her grow and learn.
Shields said the school's Graduates of Distinction group is admirable because successful students "are not lost in the crowd" and get recognized for their hard work.
Byerly, who had just returned from freshman orientation at UT-Knoxville, said he always has taken his education seriously, but his sophomore year's first advanced placement class required him "to buckle down a little bit as far as rigor goes," and the next year he took four AP classes.
"That was kind of a turning point for me. Junior year was when I fell in love with learning rather than being in love with doing well," the 18-year-old said. "I've always been a curious guy and I've always been interested in learning, but junior year it was intensified."
Brad Benefield, a history teacher who taught a number of Byerly's classes, played a special role in his achievement, he said. Benefield was Byerly's instructor for AP European history as a sophomore, AP U.S. history as a junior and led Byerly as a senior in a directed study class in which he read books and wrote historical monographs about them.
"He loves what he does and he knows so much," Byerly said. "He lives out his faith, he lives out his principles, and he was able to challenge me continually from spring semester of sophomore year till now. He really pushed me to be better in all areas of my life."
Byerly, whose proudest accomplishments include being named an AP Scholar and completing the Rock 'n' Roll Nashville half marathon in April 2017, plans to stay the path on the history theme through master's and doctoral degrees.
"I want to be an historian," he said, "a history professor, but one that is published and does research."
Byerly believes Cleveland High School's multiple honoree Graduates of Distinction practice is "very special" compared with traditional recognition, particularly its celebration of the students' collaboration with teachers to succeed.
"My brother [May UT graduate Austin] was also a Graduate of Distinction, so I spent my four years thinking, 'I want to get a 4.0 so I can thank a teacher,'" he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.