Ben Brissette has a fairly extensive vocabulary; his perfect ACT and SAT scores are proof of that. But don't expect to find the term "downtime" in his lexicon.
On a cross country trail, in the pool, onstage, or in the science lab, the active Des Plaines teen prefers to be on the move.
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Benjamin BrissetteAge: 18
Hometown: Des Plaines
School: Maine West High School, Duke University
Who inspires you? Everyone inspires me.
What's on your iPod? Nothing; it doesn't exist.
What book are you reading? "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" by Oliver Sacks
The three words that best describe you? Curious, driven, compassionate
"You're so much less inclined to waste time when you know how many things you have to do," he said. "The busier I am, the easier it is to cope with it all."
The recent Maine West High School grad shows no signs of slowing down as he prepares to make the 800-mile journey this weekend to Duke University. In Durham, N.C., he plans to join the marching and pep bands, do research and -- if he can squeeze some extra hours out of his schedule -- look for opportunities to flex his theater and vocal music muscles.
Ben doesn't know any other way. The 18-year-old was so involved at Maine West that he became a skilled negotiator with coaches and teachers.
Advanced Placement biology partly overlapped with AP Spanish, so Ben got special permission to skip the first third of science class every day and teach himself what he missed. Swim team and theater often conflicted, so his coach agreed to let him put in extra practices when he was able.
Sometimes the result of Ben spreading himself so thin was sacrificing sleep, medals and accolades. Lead roles and trips to state competitions often took a back seat to supporting characters and strong, but not first-place, showings.
For Ben, winning wasn't the overarching goal.
"The whole point was to be involved, not necessarily the best," Ben said. "I enjoyed it, and I think that's what really counts."
That's not to say Ben didn't excel in just about everything he tried. Though hardly a fan of standardized testing ("Kids aren't standardized and education shouldn't be, either," Ben says), he was one of 0.022 percent of test takers to get a perfect 2400 on the SAT exam. He also scored a perfect 36 on the ACT -- twice. Maine West didn't offer the optional writing portion of the test, so Ben took it again on his own.
ACT spokesman Ed Colby said the Iowa City-based organization doesn't keep statistics on such a feat.
"I've heard of that happening before, but it's obviously extremely rare," Colby said.
Ben's academic prowess was evident early on. He came to Maine West as a seventh-grader for math, and when there were no more classes to take, he continued his studies at Oakton Community College. And his science teachers encouraged him to be the school's first student to compete in the Siemens Competition, which requires original research.
That led to him volunteering each of the past two summers at the Lurie Children's Hospital Research Center in Lincoln Park, where his mother, Constance Weil, knew a department head.
In the most basic of explanations, Ben has been growing and testing cells to try to determine why folic acid is an effective prenatal treatment in cutting down spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
"It helps prove that someone my age can still make a difference in the world," Ben said. "We don't need to wait until college and a career. I know that I'm helping in research that will eventually prevent a disease, and that's a really great feeling."
AP bio teacher Leslie Vaughn said that in addition to being incredibly intelligent, Ben never takes anything for granted.
"AP students generally take what teachers say at face value and spit it back, but Ben was never happy with that," Vaughn said. "He wants to know how do we know that, what makes you say that. He was always wanting me to justify what we as scientists take as truth."
Multiple teachers also saw Ben's leadership potential as a freshman and nominated him for the Principal's Leadership Team. He served all four years, listening to student feedback and working to institute changes such as creating a more realistic cellphone policy while increasing penalties.
Principal Audrey Haugan said she wanted Ben, the co-president his senior year, to be the first student to run the meetings in her place.
"He sat where I usually sit, had an agenda and took control," Haugan said. "He was unpretentious and did more with that team than any other year. Ben is absolutely brilliant, but he's humble about it."
For Ben, keeping his 6-foot-5 body in shape was just as important as academics. And in the spirit of efficiency, Ben of course took part in the most fitness-oriented sports, playing soccer as a freshman, swimming all four years and running varsity cross-country sophomore through senior year.
Ben's commitment to athletics, academics and good citizenship -- he earned the rank of Eagle Scout last month -- resulted in his making the IHSA's 2012-13 All-State Academic Team. He was one of 13 males to receive the honor, and the only student from the Northwest suburbs.
Then there was Ben's second home: the stage.
He sang in the choir, performed in every musical and played French horn. He also competed for the speech team, serving as captain his senior year. Tired of taking on depressing categories such as dramatic interpretation, he gave comedy a try.
"The chance to try on a new personality and experience an entirely new life, via a back story in a show, is exhilarating," Ben said. "And you can make the audience completely forget about their own lives for a while."
Ben plans to explore his creative and practical sides at Duke, where he'll likely double major in Spanish and neuroscience en route to becoming a college professor. He hopes to one day teach and do medical research.
"With teaching, especially in college, you're encouraged to continue learning about your field and have the most freedom in defining curriculum," Ben said. "If I want to learn something entirely new, I can petition the university to create a new course. I'll only be limited by my imagination and my drive."
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.