Plant High grad Betsy Scherzer is Florida's top female presidential scholar, but hardly the nerd her brother charges.
By ROB BRANNON
Published July 4, 2003
Betsy Scherzer sat in awe.
There she was, at a formal dinner in Washington, D.C., listening to a speech by Laura Bush. Earlier in the night, she and the first lady had exchanged a minute's worth of pleasantries.
As Mrs. Bush began to speak, she thanked the Teacher of the Year recipient, who also happened to have the first name Betsy.
"She said my first name," Scherzer excitedly told everyone at her table.
Moments later, Scherzer's excitement nearly brought her out of her chair. Mrs. Bush had just finished telling the audience of educators and students about the importance of teaching when she read an excerpt from an essay Scherzer had written.
"Oh my God, she said my name," Scherzer told her table, briefly forgetting about decorum. "The first lady quoted my essay."
The essay was about Scherzer's seventh-grade teacher, Jayne Hobgood, also seated at the table. The first lady read a line about how they "bonded over books, drama, creative writing, chocolate, you name it."
That moment of glory was among many highlights for Scherzer during a six-day tour of the nation's capital. But maybe the most amazing aspect of the trip was that she made it at all.
Scherzer, 18, a May graduate of Plant High School who lives on Davis Islands, went to Washington last week as a 2003 Presidential Scholar. The exclusive club boasts the nation's brightest high school students.
Scherzer and the 120 other scholars were selected from about 2.8-million seniors, of which 2,600 were nominated. The finalists were chosen based on SAT or ACT scores, transcripts, essays and extra-curricular and community activities. Each state had one male and female representative.
More than a dozen received the distinction for their artistic achievements.
The award marked a milestone for Hillsborough County, which has not had a female academic scholar in more than a decade.
Thanks to perfect grades and 11 advanced placement courses, Scherzer earned a 6.76 grade point average. She flatly refuses to tell anyone but family members her college board scores, but categorizes them as near perfect. Her academic accomplishments got her a spot in Yale University.
Scherzer remembers well the day she found out about the award. The news came moments before an AP exam in May.
Her mother, Times columnist Amy Scherzer, showed up at school out of the blue with tears in her eyes.
"I was like, "Oh, great, someone died, or maybe I got kicked out of Yale,"' Scherzer said. Moments later, joy replaced her dread.
"I was jumping around. Then I thought, "Uh oh, I better take the AP exam," Scherzer said.
When her younger brother, Ricky, found out, he declared her the "biggest nerd in the state of Florida."
And so it was that she ended up in Washington June 21-26, barely sleeping all week and rushing around to see the sites.
An avid West Wing fan, she went on a tour of the Eisenhower Building and attended a State Department debriefing. Naturally, the presidential group visited the White House, which didn't impress Scherzer except for the pictures of first pets.
"I decided, if I'm ever president, I'm going to have an emu," she said.
Another highlight: spending time on the House of Representatives floor with U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, where Democrats sat to the left and Republicans on the right. Davis gave her a quick lesson on the latest political celebrities.
"He said, "That guy there is running for president, but he's not going to win,"' Scherzer said.
Despite all of the elbow-rubbing with political superstars and visits to historically significant venues, Scherzer said she was most impressed with the fellow scholars. All week, she engaged in big discussions with her intellectual equals, nearly a third of whom are going to Harvard University.
"We'd have a discussion about James Joyce one minute and a really good joke the next," she said. "I was definitely one of the more boring people there. ... But it was good to see they were not elitist."
Scherzer is enjoying a brush with fame. In addition to the first lady's mention of her essay, Scherzer's picture was featured on a full-page ad in USA Today. She also received a medal.
Like all of the recipients, Scherzer brought one teacher who had influenced her the most. Instead of a high school teacher, Scherzer chose Hobgood, a teacher from Wilson Middle School.
"I didn't know what to say," said Hobgood about receiving the invitation. "What can you say when a kid graduated from high school thinks back to one year when I teach her language arts?
"I guess I kind of feel like farmers when they sow seeds in the spring and come back a few months later to see the fruits of their work."
Hobgood described Scherzer as a model student because, no matter how boring a task, she always found a way to make it more interesting.
"She doesn't like labels. She defies all of those because she's multitalented and she's interested in everything," Hobgood said.
Outside of the classroom, Scherzer served on Plant's varsity tennis team for four years. She loves playing Ultimate Frisbee and paints, draws and sews. She served as president of Plant's chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions for two years and vice president of the National Art Honor Society. She was elected to Plant's Hall of Fame for academics, and founded and served as president for the New Business Leaders in the Making Club.
Scherzer, a talkative, funny teen with wide, sparkling blue eyes and rosy cheeks, said she spends what free time she has with friends and family, reading or listening to music.
Scherzer, who describes herself as an idealist, looks forward to living in New Haven, Conn., where she will attend Yale. First, she'll take care of some essentials.
"I don't handle cold weather very well," said the Tampa native. "I have to find a space heater to strap to my back."
After college, Scherzer wants to be a superhero-like figure and save the world. She'll do it, she said, through a love of environmental issues that she credits to a "hippie camp" she attended for many summers.
"It instilled in me this tree-huggerness," she said.
She plans to study environmental engineering and hopes to invent a car that doesn't pollute. And if the engineering classes don't go her way, she may turn to environmental law.
Either way, she can't imagine spending 40 hours a week behind a desk.