Joe Sessions knew he faced a choice.
He could continue to live in fear, letting his stutter silence him. Or, he could become an engaged student, risking ridicule from the other kids who might dismiss him as an outcast.
Joe SessionsAge: 18
Hometown: Arlington Heights
School: Harvard University
Who inspires you? Andrew Jackson
What's on your iPod? Maroon 5, Coldplay
What book are you reading? The "Game of Thrones" series by George R.R. Martin
The three words that best describe you? Smart, Sociable, Friendly.
Joe decided that if his peers laughed, so be it.
"I could either keep not talking, keep kind of staying off to the side and just being quiet, or I could actually start enjoying school, talking to my peers, talking to my teachers and actually participating," he said.
Several years later, the 18-year-old Arlington Heights native is a Harvard-bound extrovert with the titles of Homecoming King and Eagle Scout under his belt, and lofty political aspirations ahead.
It's been a busy but entertaining ride for the recent Hersey High School graduate, who, by never failing to make the most of his waking hours, has made his mark in the classroom, on the field, in the arts and throughout the community.
Joe's work ethic is reflected in his academic credentials, which include the 35 he scored on the ACT and his top-10 class rank. Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher Kent Borghoff said Joe often set the curve when it came to tests, and called him one of the most complete students with whom he's ever worked.
"What distinguishes Joe from his peers is that he is motivated by the pursuit of academic inquiry more than any consequent recognition," Borghoff said. "He revels in challenging material."
Joe also relished opportunities to get into spirited historical debates and introduce some levity that would have the whole class laughing.
"I'm not afraid to be open in the classroom and do something out of the ordinary if it means contributing to everyone's learning experience, because I'm learning, too," Joe said. "I know when to turn it on and off."
That enthusiasm was just as evident come football season, when Joe and his buddies could be found rambunctiously cheering in the front row, decked out in body paint after their pregame tailgate in the parking lot.
Similarly, lending support to others was one motivation behind Joe's journey to becoming an Eagle Scout, a rank he reached this year. For his beast of a service project, he led volunteers in painting and refurbishing all 450 of the Arlington Heights Park District's green garbage cans.
Adding to an already packed schedule was Joe's involvement in soccer, track and the steel, marching, concert and symphonic bands. He served as section leader of the percussionists.
Joe also excelled in the DECA business club, placing eighth in state as a sophomore. At competitions, he and his partner took tests on basic business principles and then role-played various scenarios, such as how outsourcing labor affects public opinion of a corporation.
Last year, Joe again qualified for state but couldn't go because Hersey's band performed at New York City's Carnegie Hall.
Since Joe has always been everyone else's biggest fan, best friend Austin Menzia decided it was time for recognition of his own.
So Austin led a campaign on Joe's behalf to make a run at Homecoming King, even selling 200 T-shirts that featured an awkward picture of Joe with a Photoshopped crown.
"It was weird to see about a tenth of the school walking around in Joe Sessions T-shirts, but I thought it would be cool for someone to win who wasn't the quarterback or most popular guy in school," Austin said. "He's the unique kid who does it all, so I thought he'd be a better fit."
Joe hopes that campaign will serve as a precursor to many more.
After majoring in economics at Harvard, Joe wants to work on Wall Street in investment banking. Assuming he's successful and makes some money, he then wants to get involved in politics.
"I just love helping people and being a representative, and you need some money to do that because politics today is insane," Joe said. "In government, there are many things that aren't so great in terms of the financial markets, so I feel like being a part of that would be a good way to help fix it."
Joe knows that such a high-risk, high-reward environment is also high-pressure, something that can aggravate his speech impediment. But Joe is confident the techniques he's learned -- slowing down his talking, using simple beginnings to ease into senses, working to remain calm -- will aid in his success.
And to Joe, succeeding means going after a seat in Congress, Senate or some other position of prominence.
"The sky's the limit," Joe said. "I have very high goals for myself and I do what I can to reach them. My entire life, Harvard was my goal. Now it's time to pick something else, so why not aim high?"
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.