Lovejoy High School English Teacher Zach Etheridge said he realized one of his students, Davis Nguyen, was going to be one of the biggest challenges of his educational career, less than a week into the pupil's freshman year in high school.
He did not mean Nguyen would have trouble learning. On the contrary, Etheridge said he meant Nguyen worked so hard in class that the teacher was going to have trouble finding something challenging enough for his young pupil.
"Just looking at his eyes," Etheridge said. "They were so sharp, it was unmistakable that here was a kid with extraordinary abilities and intelligence. It was really obvious from the get-go that he was going to push me very hard to keep up with what he was able to learn ... I'll be lucky if I have a student like this again in my career."
Nguyen, 18, now a senior at Lovejoy, was named Clayton County's overall STAR Student on Wednesday, during a recognition luncheon hosted the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, and the Clayton County Rotary Club, for each high school's individual STAR Students.
Etheridge was recognized as the county's overall STAR Teacher.
The STAR Student program is run the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and local county-level chambers of commerce, on behalf of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
Nguyen and Etheridge are now in the running to possibly be named the Region 3B STAR Student and STAR Teacher during the regional recognition ceremony on March 17, in Griffin.
Each STAR Student is the pupil who has his or her school's highest SAT score, and is in the top 10 percent, or among the top 10 students in his or her graduating class. The students pick one of their teachers, who has had a lasting impact on them, as their STAR Teacher.
The county's overall STAR Student is the one with the highest SAT score among the school-level STAR Students.
Nguyen scored a 2170 on the SAT, which has a maximum score of 2400, and has a 4.5 grade-point average. He said he finds it "outstanding" that he started his educational career struggling with English, but still grew up to earn a high score on the SAT.
"It felt great, because there was a time in my life when English was an issue for me, and English counts as two-thirds of the SAT," Nguyen said. "To be able to say I mastered my use of English, and to surpass on this test, and score in the 97th percentile nationwide, coming from a family who just moved here 20 years ago, it's outstanding testimony to the dedication and hard work I've put in."
Nguyen, whose family moved to Georgia from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, said he has always striven to be the best student in school. "I've never been in a classroom where I didn't aim to be No. 1," he said. "If I started out at the bottom, I saw the ceiling as the No. 1 position. I would work my way slowly, climbing the ladder of success. Climbing the ladder of hard work. Climbing the ladder of self-motivation.
"There's never been a time where I looked at myself and said, ‘I'm going to quit, because there's no way I can get to the next level,'" he added.
Nguyen said his parents and grandparents came to the U.S. with only $200, and, sometimes, had to take on two shifts at their jobs just so the family would have enough money to get by.
At one time, Nguyen said, he offered to take up a summer job to help his family out, but his grandparents urged him to focus on his academics instead. "So, instead of spending those eight hours working at McDonald's, or eight hours in a Chick-fil-A, I decided to devote those eight hours to my studies, and, eventually, my goal is to pay back my family in tangible ways for the intangibles they've given me," he said.
Nguyen's grandfather, Ba Nguyen, said his grandson is not kidding about how much time he devotes to his studies. "He studies all the time," the grandfather said. "He never goes out."
Etheridge said Davis Nguyen has shown his dedication to his studies, time and again, in his classroom. The teacher said it is his pupil's work ethic that makes him stand out from other students.
"I give an assignment on Monday, and say it's due on Friday," Etheridge said. "I'll have the first draft on Tuesday morning from Davis. I'll have two more before Friday, each of which I'm then required to mark up thoroughly, and discuss with him, so that when he turns in the finished assignment on Friday, it's a polished fourth draft."
Davis Nguyen said he is waiting to hear if he has been accepted to Harvard University, Stanford University, or Brown University. He said has not yet decided what his major will be in college, but he's considering management, speech education and biomedical engineering as possibilities.
In addition to Davis Nguyen, other STAR Students recognized on Wednesday included: Forest Park High School's Hung Le; Jonesboro High School's Lafon Arnold; Morrow High School's Katelyn Perry; Mt. Zion High School's Quang Minh Nhu Kieu; Mundy's Mill High School's Ryann Simone Jackson; North Clayton High School's Tin Thanh Nguyen, and Riverdale High School's Derrick Logan.
In addition to Etheridge, other STAR Teachers recognized on Wednesday included: Forest Park High School's Mildred Ivory; Jonesboro High School's Jeff Cox; Morrow High School's Harold Jones; Mt. Zion High School's Chandra Williams; Mundy's Mill High School's Terry Garner; North Clayton High School's Regina Mitchell, and Riverdale High School's Moises Payamps.