To Syd Sanders, who believes he's the first transgender high school valedictorian in Maine and possibly in the U.S., his greatest achievement is simply being himself.
"I just am who I am," he recently told the Bangor Daily News. "I would probably be dead if I couldn't be who I was. I just have to be myself."
Sanders ranks at the top of his class at Belfast Area High School. He transferred there as a freshman after beginning his transition in eighth grade while going to school on Isleboro, an island off the Maine coast, as he wanted to have a fresh start and simply be accepted as male without anyone realizing he was trans.
"Over time, people found out," he said in the interview. "When I came out as trans, publicly, to everyone, and started living as a boy, they had no choice but to support me."
That could be because he's not only a high achiever but an outspoken one, the Daily News notes. "I have a naturally loud, combative personality, so it's hard to stay hidden for long," Sanders told the paper. "There are lots of conservative people at Belfast. But the thing is, I've just gained their respect somehow. I feel that even people who disagree with who I am, they still respect me. I don't know entirely why. But that's what happened."
Teachers and administrators were full of praise for Sanders. "Syd Sanders is an extraordinary person, with a depth of understanding, passion, and commitment unusual for someone so young," said Mary Alice McLean, superintendent of his school district, Regional School Unit 71. In class, she said, he is "a rock star, modeling a genuine fascination about each of his subjects."
He also has a long list of extracurricular activities. He was a member of the school's gay-straight-trans alliance all through high school, class president for his junior and senior years, and Belfast's representative to Boys State -- the first transgender student selected; the other participants voted him senator there. Outside school, he has been on Belfast's Climate Change Committee, acted and worked as a stage manager in community theater, and helped put together the Belfast Pride Parade.
Sanders has been accepted by Harvard University. He's finishing high school via Zoom, as are his classmates, because of the current health situation. That means they won't have the traditional graduation ceremony either.
"It's a very lonely way to graduate," he said, but he saw positive aspects as well. "I really feel that this is bringing my generation together," he said. "I'm trying to think of this as a way we can find some solidarity and come together in the future."