Shrugging Off Conventional Rules, Miss McCarthy Writes Own Script

By MAX HART

Ask high school valedictorians around the country what they like to do in their free time, and you will likely hear a variety of conventionally high-brow answers: write poetry, play a musical instrument, paint watercolors, perform community service.

Now ask Simone McCarthy, valedictorian of this year's graduating class at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, what she likes to do when free from the constraints of studying.

"I like to drive my car," she says with a laugh. "The Island is just so beautiful and I just end up driving all over. I probably spend more time in my car driving up-Island with my friends than anywhere else."

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If the appreciation of natural beauty from the confines of an automobile seems like an unconventional answer from someone who is recognized for her intellect, then it is an accurate glimpse into the personality of the top student of the Class of 2006. Miss McCarthy is the unconventional valedictorian, a young woman who shrugs off labels, ignores definitions and dismisses classification, a scholar who does not need numbers to tell her what her worth is. She is confident, relaxed and down to earth, and while she is first in her class, a position that can come with a heavy burden, she carries it with almost effortless ease.

"There is so much more than school and grades, and I value people by who they are, not what their GPA is," she says over lunch on a soggy afternoon this week. "I do not believe I am the smartest person because I have the best GPA. I have so much respect for my entire class and I don't feel like I am better than anyone else, so why should I speak for so many people that know so much more than me about so many things? I mean, I am probably one of the only valedictorians that does not know anything about math or science."

When she says "speak for so many people," she is referring to the mandatory speech she will give Sunday during the graduation ceremonies. It is something she is having an uncharacteristically difficult time with, and at the time of the interview she had yet to complete it - even though it was due at the beginning of the day.

"That's another thing about me, I leave everything to the last minute," she adds with a smile. "I am a huge procrastinator."

And while this poised young woman with an easygoing style would prefer to be seen simply as just another Island kid with good grades, there is no hiding from the accolades that are frequently bestowed upon the top student. Along with her near flawless academic record, she was the editor of the High School View, the student newspaper, for two years, the founding member of the Model UN club, and a talented actress who last summer wowed audiences playing the title role in the Vineyard Playhouse production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. She is also a gifted writer whom her teachers say possesses an intuitively brilliant mind.

In September, she heads to college at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. - the same city where she was born 18 years ago.

"She just has that kind of intellect that is unquenchable, an intelligence that is academic but also insightful," principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said last week. "She is one of those kids where we say ‘Good luck to Yale,' I think she will challenge them as much as they challenge her. She is a star."

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For a young woman so grounded, it is somewhat ironic that she spent so much of her early life on the move. After she was born, her family moved from Connecticut to Pennsylvania and eventually to New Jersey, where they settled on Long Beach Island, a resort community along the southern Jersey shore - her first experience living on an island.

"I was really mad when I moved here. I didn't want to come here at all," she says. "But now I am so glad I grew up here. I like this Island better."

She stayed in New Jersey through fourth grade, then moved to the Vineyard where her father, William, had been hired to teach English at the high school. But even here she moved around. After starting out in West Tisbury, the McCarthys ended up in Edgartown via Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs.

"I moved nine times, and lived in every town except Chilmark and Aquinnah," she says with a laugh. "Maybe that's where I get my love of driving."

Miss McCarthy said she never felt pressure from her parents to succeed and that she learned to excel on her own.

"What do you have if you don't have yourself," she says.

Perhaps more than anything, Miss McCarthy is lauded by her teachers for her writing, something she says came to her at a young age when she became obsessed with the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

"I used to write novels when I was little, imitating the style of those books," she says. "I would write stories about pioneer struggles where everyone broke their legs and there were eight tornados. They were ridiculous."

Her interest in creative writing followed her into junior high school and high school, where she discovered literature such as Lord of the Flies by William Golding and the works of Edgar Allen Poe during her freshman year English class - a class she credits as sparking her interest in writing.

"Miss Silvia's class really had an influence on me," she recalls. "I feel like I changed a lot in high school and became much more appreciative of things, and I think my attitude really changed that year."

Talking about the past, her eyes light up reminiscing about friends and favorite memories. Like last summer, when she played Juliet on the stage at the Tisbury amphitheatre, something she says taught her a lesson in dedication.

"When I got the part, I thought I really had to commit myself," she says. "It was something that was very personal. It was the first role where I thought you can't just act like Juliet, you have to become her."

As for the future, Miss McCarthy says: "I'm not really the type of person that looks ahead to much. I live a lot more in the present rather than think ahead to the future. You have to really try to go with the flow or you'll go crazy."

Right now, she is looking forward to a relaxed summer working and preparing for college. But despite her reluctance to predict what the next four years will hold, Miss McCarthy offers some glimpse into her interests, which currently include Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, an area that increasingly fascinates her. Whether it leads to a career does not matter.

"I also want to have a solid background in the classics, because I think they are so important in putting what you learn into context," she says.

At that, she pauses, then makes an addendum.

"At least in humanities. I don't care about having a solid background in math or science.