Hailey Cherokee Jordan was 12 years old when she first set foot inside Archbishop O’Hara High School on Kansas City’s south side.
It was summer, and she was there to register for classes the following fall.
Touring the school halls, the girl froze in front of the scholar wall and looked up. Plaques bearing the names of every valedictorian and salutatorian since 1969 are displayed there.
“She looked right at me and said, ‘I want to be on that wall. I’m going to get on that wall,’” said Jordan’s mom, Nancy Allen-Simmons.
On Sunday, 16-year-old Jordan walked with the 2013 O’Hara High School graduating class and then addressed them as this year’s valedictorian. With a 5.4 grade point average her senior year, and a 4.7 overall GPA, Jordan is the youngest valedictorian in school history.
Speaking those words that day four years ago, Jordan said, it was like making a promise to her mom and to herself.
“I wanted to do this for my mom and because I wanted to be the first African American on that wall. I just wanted to make a difference,” Jordan said.
The dream wasn’t far-fetched.
“Hailey is really a neat kid,” said Jane Schaffer, assistant principal at O’Hara. “She is really a worker.”
Jordan has always been a bright student. She could enter ninth grade at O’Hara at age 13 because she had skipped second grade.
And, she admits, she is driven.
“I have always liked learning. They used to call me the sponge. I just soaked it all up,” she said, flashing a smile that spread across her face.
Jordan’s small voice matches her small frame, but her message to students is a big one: “Give thanks for your blessings, life, intelligence, friends, your loved ones who have sacrificed so much to provide opportunities for us...”
Jordan gives her mom a lot of credit for encouraging her to strive for excellence in her school work. She also was pretty pushy, Jordan said, about her being involved in school activities. “She wanted me to be a well-rounded student.”
Her innate ability didn’t mean that good grades came easily for Jordan.
“She studied hard,” her mom said. “She worked for it. Sometimes I had to drag her out of her room away from the books to make her do something extra curricular.”
Jordan pushed herself, too.
“That’s what got me on that wall,” she said, referring the display of plaques. “There are a lot of smart people in my class. The difference is just in how you apply it.”
In the end, Jordan found time to run track, be a cheerleader, and play soccer and tennis.
Sports was one way for Jordan to make friends. She had transferred to O’Hara from the Raytown School District.
On top of being younger than everyone, “I didn’t know anyone here. I used to be kind of shy. But I had to make friends. It was intimidating.”
Now she’s facing a new challenge. She will be going off to Stanford University, all the way in California, at 16, and saying good-bye to her friends at O’Hara.
At Stanford, Jordan plans to double major in biology and Spanish.
“I know I want to be in the medical field. I just don’t know what area of medicine.”
The only time she’s ever spent alone away from home was three weeks attending a scholars workshop at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She and her younger brother, who are close, missed each other.
Now she will be far away from her mother.
“It’s time for me to grow up.”