It was almost Christmas break when Ben Broughton, then a junior, discovered he was ranked second in his class at Hillcrest High School.
“That was awesome,” he says. “I was really excited, but I wanted to be number one. That was kind of my dream.”
Broughton was prepared to rev up his studying, when something devastating happened. His mother passed away. Her death was completely unexpected, the result of complications from a recent surgery.
“I went to school that day,” he says. “I didn’t want to be alone.”
He remembers having lunch with one of his favorite teachers. They ate Philly cheesesteaks and “just talked.” It was therapeutic.
“I was sad,” he admits. “But I had the support of the Hillcrest community. Everyone came together and showed me that I wasn’t alone in this.”
The school’s PTA even paid for Broughton’s older brother, who had recently moved to Austin, to take a bus home. The boys grieved together in their neighborhood house — the same house, it’s worth noting, in which their mother grew up. She, too, attended Hillcrest.
Invigorated by these gestures of kindness, Broughton says he made a conscious choice to remain optimistic.
“I saw I could look at this two ways,” he explains. “I could dwell on it — drink or smoke my way to happiness — or I could use it as motivation to continue on the path that I was on and just do the best I could.”
Advanced Placement exams were a mere two weeks away. Broughton poured himself into his studies and it paid off — he passed all four tests with flying colors. He also rose to the top of his class and plans to deliver his valedictorian speech this month.
“He ended up a star student,” says Dr. Durga Shanmugan-Johnson, who has known Broughton since his freshman year. “It’s just fascinating that he was able to go through all that he’s been through and rise to the top.”
At the time of our interview Broughton had sent college applications to Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania and University of Texas, his mother’s alma matter. No matter where he ends up, he plans to study chemical engineering because of his interest in renewable energy. He’s a scholar, to be sure, and he comes by it honestly.
“I have to credit my mom,” he says. “Not in the sense that she was on me about school, but she was a teacher and she was very smart … I’m decently studious but I also just pick up stuff really quickly … I credit my mom for my good genes.”