Ancestors' Ukrainian past drives Des Plaines teen's future
Maine East student says grandparents, father inspired him
Michael Sherman's life has been defined by stories -- of his Jewish Ukrainian grandparents escaping the Holocaust, his grandfather struggling to find a job because of his heritage, his Ukrainian father persevering to make a life for himself after coming to the United States when the Soviet Union fell.
Those stories propel his desire to succeed.
"My family worked hard forever and have overcome quite a lot, and I have a lot less that I have to overcome here -- so it just drives me," said Michael, 18, a straight-A senior at Maine East High School.
His father came to the U.S. in the 1990s with nothing, and about a year later he brought his parents, Michael said.
"I should strive to be as successful, if not more successful, than they were."
Michael, of Des Plaines, earned the Union League Club of Chicago's Democracy in Action Award, which honors high school juniors and seniors for their "dedication to democratic principles, leadership and participation in civic programs that demonstrate exemplary citizenship values."
Michael was selected with two other honorees from among 40 nominations statewide, said David Kohn, executive director of public affairs for the Union League Club of Chicago.
"Among all the many nominees, all of whom have done great work, Michael was recognized by our judges because of the breadth of his civic involvement and leadership in his school and in his community," Kohn said.
Michael is president of the Maine East Historical Society, captain of the school's Scholastic Bowl team and an officer for the school's National Honor Society chapter.
His first year at Maine East he won the school's Constitution contest, a rare feat for a freshman. His junior year he won the U.S. history competition.
As a member of the school's Gifted Lyceum program, he has raised money for leukemia research. Through Demon-ocracy, a club designed to promote civic involvement (the name is a play on the school's Blue Demons nickname), he took part in a relief trip last year to Washington, Illinois, after it was devastated by tornadoes in 2013. He is now president of the club.
He was especially glad to work with the Russian community while helping conduct citizenship workshops, he said.
"I've always been told that it's a good idea to maintain knowledge of (your native) language, and this was one of the first ways in which it's benefited me -- and others."
Michael got involved in the political process by volunteering for Bruce Rauner's gubernatorial campaign, mainly working telephone banks, through Demon-ocracy. He voted in the primary and general elections last year.
"We decided to work on the Republican side because it was more competitive. We thought it would be more interesting," he said."I learned that being in political office is, I think, fun and exciting, but running for office is very difficult."
The club's current project is to help students who don't have Internet access at home take advantage of Maine East's transition to Chromebook laptop computers, he said.
Michael is as gifted as he is humble, said Maine East teacher Snjezana Salamon, who nominated Michael for the Union League Club award. In her 21 years teaching, few students have impressed her as he has, she said.
"He's very academically driven. There's that natural ability to absorb all things and think very critically," she said, "and there's this really humble demeanor to him. A very giving side."
He also has a strong sense of justice and never fails to be empathetic and compassionate toward others, she said.
"He can work with students who are very motivated but also can work with kids who are struggling," she said. "That's a great gift."
Michael started volunteering in junior high school, when he joined a service club at the encouragement of a teacher, but it wasn't until he became involved with Demon-ocracy that the value of service really hit him.
"There's just something about helping other people -- not necessarily people, because I also worked with pets -- it's just important to me," he said.
His father, Feliks Sherman, manages a Russian/Ukrainian bakery in Skokie, and his mother, Yelena Novitskaya, is an accountant. The couple have an older daughter, Olga, 27.
His parents pushed him to do well in school when he was younger, but now it's all about his own drive, Michael said.
"My grandfather is very fond of one particular story about when he was going to school in Ukraine, in a northern Ukrainian village, and would skip school to go ice skating," he said. "He would tell me, 'Michael, don't repeat my mistakes. Your father was a better student than I am, and you have to be a better student than he was.' I guess I've never not tried at school."
Her son always showed a maturity beyond his years, Yelena Novitskaya said.
"He'd ask all different kinds of questions that 4- or 5-year-olds don't ask, complicated questions you don't expect to hear from a child," she said. "It seems like he was always thinking ahead."
Novitskaya also credits Michael's involvement with taekwondo -- he's now a black belt -- with instilling good values, she said.
"It's not just a sport but an entire culture," she said. "They teach how to respect adults, how to behave, which is not just how to be physically strong. It's not just to fight, but to feel good about themselves."
Michael said he hopes to study economics -- combining his passion for math and social sciences -- either at Northwestern University or the University of Chicago.
He's not shy about wanting to be successful and make money, although he might get involved in policy-making. No matter what, he'll want to spearhead positive change, he said.
"I think giving money is the easiest form of service. Giving time is much more valuable and also much more difficult, so hopefully I'll be able to still give time (in the future)," he said.
"As great as it is to effect change from the bottom, it's a lot easier to do change from the top. I'm hoping to do change from the top. I think it's great that in this country you can initiate change from either side. But it's easier to do it from the top."
• 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.
Michael ShermanAge>: 18
Hometown: Des Plaines
School: Maine East High School
Who inspires you? My dad, Feliks Sherman. He came here in the '90s after the fall of Soviet Union, and 'hello' and 'goodbye' were the only words he knew in English. He went to college, learned English, majored in accounting and got his job. He started with nothing and now he's had success.
What book are you reading? "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
What music are you listening to? Both English and Russian songs. I try to balance it.
The three words that best describe you? Focused. Driven. Hardworking.