Yehia Elkersh was 12 when he first heard the marching and chanting from the streets outside his family’s home in Alexandria, Egypt.
He was drawn to the sounds, just as he would be drawn to pursue academic excellence in a way that, in just a few years, would see him named Louisiana's student of the year in a life he could not have imagined at the time.
The 12-year-old Elkersh didn't take long to heed the calls of protesters in the streets urging him to join them.
He and his brother would march from dusk to dawn, every day, calling for an end to the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the U.S.-backed dictator who had ruled Egypt for almost 30 years by the time the revolution started in January 2011.
For Elkersh and his family, it was time for those years to end.
Although his mother and father were well-educated, they didn’t have the opportunity to succeed under the Mubarak regime, he said, because they didn’t participate in its corruption.
And even though Elkersh knew he was marching for his parents, and for a larger purpose, the fact that he was a 12-year-old taking part in exciting events often overshadowed that larger meaning at the time.
“Now that I look at it, it was scary and we almost died a few times, but as a little kid, you’re more in the hype,” he said.
And though the revolutionaries would have their day, seeing Mubarak forced from office, stability wouldn’t last long for Egypt nor would Elkersh’s time in his home country.
With the future of Egypt anything but clear, Elkersh received an invitation from his uncle Mohamed Elkersh, an anesthesiologist based in Covington, to join him in the United States, an offer he accepted with glee.
But the offer came with a catch. He had no time to get acclimated to his new country.
Elkersh recalls arriving in New Orleans by plane at 2:45 a.m. and then starting classes at St. Paul’s School at 7:45 a.m. that same morning.
The culture shock was immediate.
Knowing hardly a word of English, his morning algebra class went well, he said, but by the time he moved on to earth science, he couldn’t keep track of anything the teacher said.
And that was just the start of his difficulties.
Even when he gained a firmer grasp on English, Elkersh had trouble keeping up with casual conversations, as when people would talk about football.
Another problem was that he really didn’t have anyone to turn to at the school.
That changed when he met Ann Pressley, a counseling secretary at St. Paul’s. “Annie,” as Elkersh calls her, quickly became like an American mother to him, giving him rides to school and cooking him lunch.
“She’s like the most incredibly nice person ever,” Elkersh said. “She’s like my grandmother. That’s why I call her Annie — because that’s what her grandkids call her.”
For Pressley, simply talking about Elkersh stirs up emotions.
“I don’t know if I can talk about him without crying. He’s my heart,” she said. “I’ve never met anybody like him. And through everything — he’s missed his mother so much — he’s never quit smiling, never quit anything.”
In 2014, his father died. That was the most recent time Elkersh went back to his home country.
He also struggled to make friends at St. Paul’s for the first three of the four years he attended there.
“Especially being in Covington, Louisiana, it’s like a super underexposed area, like a little bubble, and kids don’t really know how to deal with foreigners,” he said.
That didn’t stop him from trying to fit in, as he joined every club he could, even the football team, where he recalls a coach telling him once in practice to “go terrorist on them” as a way to fire him up — something Elkersh attributed to “ignorance.”
In all, Elkersh either joined or founded over a dozen clubs, serving as president or vice president of almost every one. He joined so many groups just to build common interests with other students in an attempt to form friendships, and he eventually started going by the nickname “Yaya” as a way to simplify his name for his classmates.
But despite his club accomplishments, there was one goal he put above all others. It would be the crowning achievement of his high school career — getting a perfect 36 on the ACT college entrance exam.
Elkersh had scored a 35 before, but he refused to stop there. He told himself he was going to get a 36, something that only about 0.1 percent of test takers accomplish every year, according to PrepScholar.
Joe Dickens, the assistant principal of academics at St. Paul’s, recalled Elkersh studying for the test, saying Dickens could hardly get out of his car in the morning without being asked advanced prep questions right off the bat.
Even though his accomplishments make him seem cerebral, Dickens emphasized that Elkersh is just as good, if not better, a person as a student.
“He’s a once in a generation kid. Or maybe two or three. I don’t know if I’m ever going to teach another one like him. I doubt it,” Dickens said.
And just like every other goal Elkersh set for himself, he achieved his objective, scoring a 36 on his most recent ACT, something he attributed to “luck.”
In any case, the perfect ACT score, along with being his class valedictorian, among pages of other accomplishments, led to his being named 2017 Louisiana Student of the Year by the Louisiana Department of Education.
It was an unexpected honor, mostly because it is unusual for a private school student to win the award, which is voted upon mainly by public schools.
“I was just surprised to hear that I won it,” he said.
And while Elkersh has put together the most impressive high school résumé ever seen at St. Paul’s, soon it will mean little as he moves into the collegiate world.
This process has been difficult for him. He was recently granted U.S. residency, complicating the application process since he had previously applied as a foreign national.
Elkersh plans to go to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., deciding to go there instead of his previous choice of Dartmouth. He said he thought it would just be “too cold” going to school in New Hampshire after spending his whole life in Egypt and Louisiana.
He remains undecided on his future plans, which he said have become especially clouded since the election of President Donald Trump. He is a practicing Muslim, so devout that he brought a prayer rug to school.
“Me leaving the country is technically a risk,” he said, acknowledging he also faced some troubles being a Muslim in Covington.
“I don’t blame it so much on the people here as I do the ignorance,” Elkersh said, adding that until he arrived here, he had no idea what the image of Muslims was in America. “Some of the people here, it’ll blow your mind. When I came here, I was asked: 'Do you speak Muslim?' or 'Do you have trees in Egypt?' ”
Still, he said he will soon take a big risk, given the political environment: He intends to return to Egypt for a gap year before deciding what he will do in college.
Elkersh said he knows one thing for sure, which he stated in an essay that appeared in his student of the year application portfolio:
“I will not wait for the door of opportunity to present itself. I will tear a hole in the wall and build my own door.”