BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
TRAVERSING the 35-mile journey to and from Retreat, St Thomas to Wolmer's High School in St Andrew each day did not stand in the way of 18-year-old Krystal Johnson scoring 10 distinctions in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams.
That, and the four Grade 1s and a Grade 2 in the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE), have earned the teen a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, making her the only Jamaican girl to be accepted by the prestigious institution this year.
Johnson, whose distinctions were in mathematics, physics, chemistry, English language, literature, information technology, Spanish, principles of accounts, principles of business and social studies, received straight 'A's in nine of the 10 subjects, and ranked third in the island for mathematics and principles of business for the 2010 exam period.
The unassuming teen, who readily declares her Christianity, said her accomplishments were not coincidental but were the result of dedication, discipline and the strong support of her parents whose every gift to her was a book.
"Every morning I got up at 4:00 to be ready by 5:00 and I was never late, as I always got to school by 7:30," Johnson told the Jamaica Observer North East.
She didn't apply herself academically to the exclusion of extra-curricular involvement, however. Johnson served as head girl, president of the Inter-School Christian Fellowship, member of the Student Council and the Passion and Purity focus group, in addition to playing volleyball. Those activities, coupled with her regular studies and additional tutoring at the Dennis Minott-led A-QuEST, meant she never got home earlier than 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening.
The long school day and the hour-and-a-half-long drive each way left her dead beat, but the teen said she was comforted by not having to take public transportation since she got a ride from a church sister for the first five years of high school, and used a chartered service for the two years of sixth form.
"Sometimes I would sleep as I got home because I was so tired, but oftentimes I would stay up until 10:00 pm to study," she said.
During the exam period, Johnson said her schedule changed as she was usually up by 2:00 am to study. Her mother was usually right there with her.
"God bless my mother as she has really been a tower of strength encouraging me to go on," Johnson said, explaining that her mother always placed great emphasis on reading. She also expressed gratitude to her father, Henry Johnson, who gave her great support despite living overseas, as well as her stepfather Patrick Walker.
Johnson said her mother, Christine Panton-Walker, would not only be up at 4:00 each morning to make breakfast and see her off, but would also stay up with her at nights to study.
Panton-Walker, a teacher, also helped her daughter make flash cards in addition to reading the study material in order to create mock tests. She always recognised the importance of parental involvement in a child's life, Panton-Walker told the Observer North East.
"Even when I didn't understand the subjects, I made sure I was up with her helping in some way... Sometimes when I saw how tired she was I would send her to bed and stay up to type up some of her papers," the proud mother said.
Panton-Walker said she is amazed that her daughter did so well, despite having to travel so far to school.
"In my heart I am overjoyed by her achievements and she is humbled and I am humbled too by it. Krystal is not one who wants fancy things and she understands when I say I don't have the money for something," the mother said.
Eighteen-year-old Johnson also attributes her academic success to the firm educational foundation received during her early years at Calvary Basic and Lyssons Primary schools in the parish.
"The teachers challenged me to (work) to the best of my ability and also helped to instil such discipline in me," she said.
Like a lot of primary schools, Lyssons, she said, was challenged by large class sizes, but she maintained the teachers knew how to maintain order.
A high achiever since basic school, Johnson was recommended for primary school at age five, a year earlier than normal. At Lyssons, her hard work paid off when she received the Paul Bogle Scholarship for achieving the top average in the parish in the Grade Six Achievement Test. This saw her being placed at her first choice of schools — Wolmer's — despite living several miles outside Kingston. It was a move she does not regret.
The first of two children for her mother, and the second of four for her father, the teen said she was a reserved and shy child upon entering Wolmer's. The exposure from which she later benefitted, however, helped her develop into a well-rounded and confident person who managed to stay true to her Christian upbringing.
"My Christian life had an impact on me deciding to keep positive morals as it is so easy for teenagers to be distracted and be part of the negative, but my relationship with God has helped me to swim above the tide and stay true to my beliefs," she said.
Johnson also attributes her ability to remain a focused teenager to the Passion for Purity Movement which was started at Wolmer's by teacher Donette Norman.
"Mrs Norman taught us how to find our passion and embrace our purity and she mentored me through the leadership programme," she said.
In sixth form, when Johnson was introduced to the A-QuEST programme, she wasn't sure she could effectively prepare for both CAPE and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the entry exam for undergraduate programmes in the US. However, her father, Henry Johnson, who resides overseas, convinced her she could, in spite of having to spend weekends in Portmore with relatives Jean and Dalton James in order to be closer to the venue where the A-QuEST classes were held.
She is yet to settle on a career path, but Johnson said she wants to ensure it will be more than just a job. She said she initially wanted to be an economist, but later changed to actuary after being accepted to pursue actuarial science at the University of the West Indies. Now she is toying with civil and environmental engineering to incorporate her love for science and the environment.
"God has placed certain gifts and abilities that the world is to benefit from and so I am just trying to put out all to fulfil that," she said.
"Right now I am still feeling out what I have a passion for because I don't want to sit out there punching numbers. (I want to do) something to help the world," she said.