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BEST1 LONGMONT, CO – JUNE 25:Skyline High School Valedictorian Lyza Weisman poses for a portrait with her service dog Jewel outside her home in Longmont on June 25, 2020. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
BEST1 LONGMONT, CO – JUNE 25:Skyline High School Valedictorian Lyza Weisman poses for a portrait with her service dog Jewel outside her home in Longmont on June 25, 2020. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Lyza Weisman’s school career didn’t have an auspicious start.

Near the end of fourth grade, while attending an online school, she was about 70 lessons behind and in danger of needing to repeat the grade. Her mom persuaded her to stop complaining about school and get to work.

Once she decided to put in the effort, it took her just two weeks to complete all 70 of those lessons.

“From kindergarten to fourth grade, I was the worst student,” Weisman said.  “After that year, I got almost all straight A’s.”

Now, she’s the valedictorian at Longmont’s Skyline High School, a spot secured by taking 13 Advanced Placement classes. She said she took AP and honors classes because they were at her level and provided a challenge, then realized in her junior year she was in the running for valedictorian.

She clinched the top spot after taking six AP classes her senior year.

“I really, really love school,” she said.

Weisman achieved her valedictorian status despite missing months of middle and high school for surgeries. In her 18 years, she’s had 14 back surgeries and two hip surgeries. She was born with a genetic condition — spinal muscular atrophy — that causes weakness and wasting in muscles due to a loss of specialized nerve cells.

“I missed a lot of school,” she said. “If I knew I was going to be gone, I would work ahead. I don’t procrastinate. If I sat and did nothing after surgery, it would be like giving up. So I showed up.”

Along with taking a full load of advanced classes, she also served on student council.

Michelle Scott, Skyline High social studies teacher and student council adviser, said Weisman set the bar high in her classes and strove to be her best every day.

“Lyza is the single most determined student and person I have ever worked with,” Scott said. “She puts her all into everything she does, whether it is her schoolwork, her involvement in student council or her activism for the causes she works for. She never lets anything hold her back, and her compassion for others is well beyond her years.”

She added her favorite memories of Weisman are the conversations they would have about life.

“Her perspective is one of a kind,” she said. “Everyone who knows her knows she is going to accomplish amazing things in the future.”

Weisman uses a wheelchair, and her service dog, Jewel, accompanied her to school. When schools closed to in-person learning in March amid the coronavirus epidemic, she said, attention-loving Jewel, a black lab, may have been as bummed as she was.

She said learning from home for the final months of her senior year tested even her positive outlook.

She said completing her classes remotely wasn’t the issue, as she’s something of an expert after doing all that classwork from home before and after surgeries. The hard part was missing out on all the end-of-year experiences and spending time with teachers and friends.

“I missed being there,” she said. “There were so many things planned. I miss my teachers. I didn’t get to say goodbye properly.”

While an in-person graduation is happening about two months late, she said, she’s glad it’s still planned. It’s critical for the seniors who missed so much to at least celebrate this final high school milestone, she said.

“Just give me this one thing I can hold on to,” she said.

While the valedictorian doesn’t automatically give a speech at graduation, she will be this year’s speaker after trying out, virtually, by submitting a copy of her speech.

Coming up with a speech took weeks, she said. She wanted to find the right mix of acknowledging the coronavirus’ impact while also not diminishing the seniors’ accomplishments.

“I didn’t think I was going to be giving a speech at all, until I finally figured out what to say,” she said. “It wasn’t going to be a normal speech.”

Once she decided what she wanted to say, it took her about 10 minutes to write the freestyle poem that’s her speech. One of her themes is continuing traditions started by this year’s seniors, including car parades and Zoom graduation parties.

“The world has changed, but we have been taught how to change with it, to embrace change. And we have learned how to think outside the box. No matter what program you were in or what your specialty is, we have been given the skills we need to move forward,” she wrote in her speech.

Her favorite class was AP research, a class where she focused on researching a single topic and writing a paper. Her topic was comparing how women are represented in 1700s literature to today’s literature.

“It hasn’t changed that much,” she said, adding she would love to pick continue her research in college.

She’s planning to attend Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in the fall — though as someone in a high-risk category for a severe case if she contracts COVID-19, she’s still deciding if she will attend remotely full-time.

She’s planning to double major in literature and economics with a minor in psychology, then go to law school so she can follow in her great-grandfather and grandfather’s footsteps by becoming a lawyer.

“I love reading and writing and debate,” she said. “I love trying to find loopholes and solve problems. It’s a good fit, and I wanted to carry on the family legacy.”

She said she chose an out-of-state mainly because she wanted to find out “how far my independence could get me in terms of my disability.”

“I wanted to see if I can actually do this,” she said. “I’m excited to learn more and keep exploring, but the biggest thing is the independence.”

SVVSD valedictorians

Erie High School – Alexander Walker

Frederick High School – Michael Clementson

Lyons Middle Senior High School – Nicholas Boggess

Longmont High School – Emmelia Ashton

Mead High School – Owen Richardson

Niwot High School – Anton Lavrouk (I.B.) and Tim Stokes (Traditional)

Olde Columbine High School – Liberty Howard

Silver Creek High School – Lindsay Beckwith

Skyline High School – Lyza Weisman

St. Vrain Online Global Academy – Jayden Johnson