By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Hardworking and competitive are two words that describe Nicole Ahern.
The Piner High class of 2010 valedictorian earned straight A’s all the way back to fifth grade. She aced calculus, tutored ESL students and set the school record for 100-meter hurdles at a blazing 16.4 seconds.
Her efforts paid off. She got accepted to UC Berkeley, and this fall started school with plans to major in English.
“I always strive to be the best I can in every subject, whether it’s track and field or school work,” said Ahern, 18. “Anything less feels like a waste of time.”
Ahern credits her mother and stepfather with her success. Although neither graduated from college, they instilled a love of learning. Ahern, the oldest of four siblings, was determined to be the first in her family to get a four-year degree.
She seems to be well on her way. Berkeley is very different from her hometown of Rohnert Park, and it has opened Ahern’s eyes, challenging her to do even more.
“The people here are so amazing,” she said. “They ask questions that make you think. They really push themselves. That pushes me.”
Ahern is used to pushing it. At Piner, after completing all advanced-placement classes, she spent her senior year in teacher Simone Spearman’s class, tutoring immigrants who were trying to pass the high school exit exam. She said she was touched by their stories and confirmed for herself that she wanted to pursue an English degree in college.
“Nicole moved gracefully between students from Mexico, El Salvador, India and Eritrea,” Spearman said. “She patiently corrected verb tense errors and tried to translate teenage idioms like ‘chillin’ and ‘hang out’ so that these students could truly become a part of our American high school. She established a bridge to average high school experiences.”
At the same time, Ahern practiced track up to three hours a day. She was the North Bay league leader for varsity girls and participated in the Meet of Champions held in Berkeley.
Girls Scouts has been her other passion. Instead of going on exotic summer vacations, she helped run the annual Girl Scout camp in Petaluma that serves hundreds of young girls.
“I’m proud of her,” said her mother, Tami Hinton. “She had opportunities to go to Tahoe or do other things over the summer. She always said no. She loves that camp.”
Ahern has considered two careers, both involving children. Her first thought was to be an elementary school teacher, but she is also considering being a lawyer. She talked to a Sonoma County prosecutor about being a child advocate who goes after people who abuse kids.
“I love children,” she said.
Personally, Ahern is an “old soul,” her mother said, who is more interested in The Beatles and Patsy Cline that contemporary music.
Ahern proved she knows how to have a good time. In her valedictory speech, Ahern at first expressed doubt about her generation’s ability to fill the shoes left by baby boomers. Lady Gaga and Britney Spears don’t compare to The Fab Four and Elvis Presley, she said.
But then she realized that daily texting and video games have left her generation with a physical trait matched by no other before them — more flexible thumbs. It’s proof, she said, that they are different yet better connected.
“Our thumbs are more flexible because we have spent hours locked in a mental battle, analyzing strategies and thinking critically about solutions to the situation,” Ahern said. “. . . It is truly an age of information, and we have grown up in its shadow.”
With that, she gave a thumbs-up and walked off the stage.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 521-5250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Graduate of Piner High School
Lives with: Mother, Tami Hinton; stepfather, Frank Hinton; and brother, Max, 10. Sisters Elena, 9, and Julia, 5, live in Fairfax.
Heroes: Wonder Woman
Favorite book: “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks
Favorite music: Oldies,l such as The Beatles, Patsy Cline, ‘70s rock and country
Hidden Talent: Can eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey by herself in less than 10 minutes
Dream job: Criminal prosecutor or elementary school teacher