When teacher Kelly Uehlein nominated fifth-grade student Eduardo Lopez Soriano for a national reading award, she purposefully omitted the fact he has a genetic condition called ectodermal dysplasia that affects his ability to speak.
"I wanted him to be considered and recognized because of who he is, and his achievement," said Uehlein, who teaches bilingual fifth grade at Lakewood School in Carpentersville.
Eduardo Lopez SorianoAge: 11
School: Lakewood Elementary School
Who inspires you? My dentist Russell Pollina, because I want to be a dentist.
What's on your iPod? Rihanna, Psy, Macklemore
What book are you reading? I love the "Black Lagoon Adventures" series by Mike Thaler.
The three words that best describe you? Happy. Honest. Calm.
Propelled by his desire to succeed, Eduardo last month became one of just 12 students from across the nation -- out of 400 applicants -- to earn a 2013 National Scholastic All-Star Award from the Scholastic Corporation.
"While reading Eduardo's nomination we were amazed by his achievements, without even knowing about his physical challenges," said Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education.
"We know that struggling readers face many academic challenges, so to overcome those hurdles while dealing with personal obstacles speaks volumes about Eduardo. Eduardo is an example of what's possible -- that any student, no matter the obstacle, can turn things around and lead a successful life."
A characteristic of ectodermal dysplasia is having multiple missing teeth, which means 11-year-old Eduardo, whose first language is Spanish, had a greater challenge than his peers when learning English, especially when pronouncing "f" and "s."
At the beginning of the school year, Eduardo was at a zero reading level. In just a few months of very hard work, he learned to read at what Scholastic considers a third-grade level. He also was nominated by his teacher to represent his class at a youth leadership conference because he set such a great example for his peers.
Eduardo, who lives in Carpentersville, said getting good grades "is the most important thing."
Although he was born in the United States, he spoke Spanish most of his life and moved to Mexico before he finished first grade. He came back to the United States last year.
"In Mexico they teach you a little English, but not much. Like, animals, and simple words like 'hello.' I barely knew anything," he said.
He started to work on his reading last year by checking out baby books from the library, he said. He's since become a voracious reader, recently checking out 13 books from the "Black Lagoon Adventures" series in one fell swoop.
"Sometimes I got frustrated with the 's,' because I never could say it. I was bad with my 's,'" he said. "I told the teacher to help me, help me."
Eduardo did a lot more than just ask for help, Uehlein said. From the get-go, he practiced assiduously every chance he got, both at home and at school, she said.
"He started borrowing books and taking them home, and he started coming in on his lunchtime and during recess," she said. "He was very determined, very motivated. His reading comprehension scores were going up and up."
Soon, other students started to take notice, she said.
"They were like, 'Wow.' They also started borrowing books and asking to come in at recess to do extra work," she said. "He was a motivator, an inspiration for others. They wanted to be successful like him."
Eduardo and his siblings, Heidi, 14, and Ailton, 8, who also has ectodermal dysplasia, live with their grandmother Martina Rodriguez and their maternal uncle Manuel Soriano. The siblings moved back to Mexico in 2008 after their parents divorced and their mother decided she wanted to go back to school and get a college degree. Last year, their grandmother persuaded their mother to let the kids come back to Carpentersville.
"This is their country, and they have more opportunities -- both for their health and for having a good profession," Rodriguez said.
"Sometimes we ask ourselves, 'Why both of them?'" she said of the boys' genetic condition, whose characteristics also include not being able to sweat and having no eyebrows or eyelashes. "But all the sacrifices are worth it. We don't take it like they have a disease. They are just special kids."
The boys' futures began to turn around thanks to pediatric dentist Russell Pollina of Barrington, who took on their cases pro bono.
"We looked and looked for help, and (Pollina) was the first one who paid attention," Rodriguez said.
In January, Pollina outfitted Eduardo with braces, which he'll keep for another couple of years. The goal is to eventually outfit him with partial dentures, said Pollina.
Pollina said he heard about the boys from a former patient's mother who works at the boys' pediatrician's office.
"It just hit home in a sense," said Pollina, who came to the United States from Italy when he was 9 years old.
"Eduardo and his brother have a special place in my heart because of their condition. Having to learn a new language, coming here to U.S. -- the land of opportunity -- and trying to make something out of themselves ... that's all familiar to me. I also had the experience of being bullied and picked on."
Eduardo said he wasn't bullied "very much" in school, but his younger brother Ailton wasn't so lucky. Ailton said Eduardo gives him advice like "don't listen to them."
Eduardo has also been an inspiration to his relatives, said his uncle, who is now thinking about going back to college.
"He's an example for us, in the sense that it doesn't matter what your circumstances are -- if you want something, you do it," he said.
When Eduardo grows up, he wants to be a dentist, he said.
"I like how the dentist fixes everything. I want to be like one of the dentists for the kids that have my problem -- to help them," Eduardo said.
"Will he be successful in life? Yes, just because all the effort I've seen him put in," his teacher Uehlein said.
"It's not like I'm rewarding him for extra work, for coming in at recess. He doesn't get a candy, he doesn't get a prize. It's him motivating himself and wanting this for himself," she said. "That's what's so inspiring about it."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.