By: Mrs. Leigh Anne Clay, Upper School Journalism and Middle School English
Even before he walked into my Journalism class at the beginning of his junior year, Michael Russo had an impressive reputation as an exceptional student, an accomplished musician, a talented writer, and a compassionate friend. Since then, I have watched in awe as he has added countless experiences to his long list of accomplishments: peer leader, yearbook editor, newspaper editor, actor, performer, student director, and public speaker. As a CHC legend, he has such fond memories of Lower School, especially Ms. Lechler’s 3rd grade class and Mrs. Thornton’s 5th grade class. Throughout Middle and Upper School, Michael has taken advantage of every opportunity afforded to him - creating even more along his journey. I am simply amazed how he finds the time to practice and perform with the Bay Youth Orchestra, participate in school musical performances and drama productions, all while maintaining a 4.0+ GPA with all advanced and AP classes.
His success is due - at least in part - to his naturally inquisitive mind and his innately powerful drive to complete every task to perfection. Asking not only “Why?” and “What if?” but also “How can I do or make this better?” are all common questions from Michael. These qualities have served him well throughout his Upper School career and will undoubtedly continue as he heads to JMU in the fall. During his college search process, he considered UVA, William & Mary, UNC Chapel Hill, American, and Elon, but JMU was always his top choice. His older brother, Andy (‘11) graduated from JMU, and Michael has fond memories of visiting the campus years ago. Michael shared, “When I visited JMU this past February, I was excited to go on my own tour and create my own experiences, but I was also a little nervous that I would like the school just because Andy went there.” Recalling my own experiences as a 1990 JMU graduate, I assured Michael that JMU is special for so many people - for so many reasons. After he returned from his visit, I loved hearing him tell me how the school - the campus, the people, the food, and the opportunities - felt so right to him personally. He said, “When I went to see the SMAD advisor so my parents and I could learn more about the program, I expected to speak with him for 20 or 30 minutes. We spent nearly two hours talking and touring the SMAD department before spending time with the Director of Orchestras to see how I could continue playing viola while studying journalism. In my mind, there is no other school for me.”
Already, Michael has carved a path for success for himself at JMU. As a member of the Honors College, he will be studying Media Arts and Design with a concentration in journalism. Normally students have to apply to be accepted into the School of Media Arts and Design after their freshman year, but because he was chosen as SMAD’s Byrd-Mims Scholar, he received automatic admission into the major in addition to a merit scholarship. Michael was also a finalist for the school’s Dingledine-Bluestone Scholarship, earning a Madison Excellence Award after interviewing with faculty from the school. With the two scholarships combined, all of his tuition and fees are covered.
Leaving CHC was never going to be easy, though, as it has been his home away from home for 13 years. When I spoke with Mrs. Leigh Gregory, Upper School Chemistry teacher, about Michael, she shared that Michael is “something of a Cape Henry Upper School institution – probably because we all feel like we’ve known him for years. Michael’s older brother, Andy, was in my daughter’s grade, Cape Henry Class of 2011. When Michael was six or seven years old, we would see them walking through the Upper School hallways on their way to and from the Lower School every morning and afternoon – Andy and his Mini-Me. We’ve all watched Michael grow up.” She remembers hearing accolades about Michael’s younger years: “A polite boy with excellent organizational skills who made straight A’s on every assessment. A serious student more focused on his schoolwork than his social life. Michael was every teacher’s dream.” After teaching him Honors Chemistry and AP Chemistry, she said, “I’m proud to see that the good little boy we’ve all known for so long has grown into a self-confident young man. I believe he will succeed wherever he goes, to college and beyond.”
Like all of us, Michael never anticipated how COVID-19 would impact his senior year. Finishing classes online through Zoom and missing out on The Addams Family production, Bay Youth concerts, senior prom, graduation, and the senior Nexus trip to Myanmar, he is saddened by so many memories lost. He is hopeful, however, that life will return to normal as he transitions to college life. Reflecting on leaving CHC, Michael admitted, “It’s a little scary leaving behind the only school I’ve known and the familiarity that comes with it. Fortunately, I’m also familiar with JMU, so that makes the transition not so intense. I’ll miss all of my teachers and friends that have supported me over the years, but I know that I’ll have the opportunity to see everyone when I’m home for breaks, so that’s reassuring, too.”
When asked about classes that made the most impact on him, he struggled to choose since he found profound worth in nearly every Upper School class. After careful thought, he narrowed his choice to two: Journalism and AP US Government. Michael explained, “Journalism with Mrs. Clay and Mr. Walker has definitely been a life-changing class. I knew that the class was offered, but I couldn’t take it until my junior year because of my schedule. I had to help form a Bell 0 Chamber Music orchestra class so I could continue playing viola and fit journalism in my schedule, and it was the best thing I ever did. This class made me want to study journalism and make it my career, that’s how much it impacted me. Mrs. Clay and Mr. Walker believed in me before I really wrote much for the newspaper or yearbook and offered to take me to Columbia University in New York and JMU for week long journalism and yearbook conferences. Those are undoubtedly two of my favorite experiences in my life. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for taking this class and hope that future students can find the same enjoyment as I did in Journalism.” Michael, I can assure you that Mr. Walker and I are equally fortunate to have been your teachers for the past two years. You have quite literally left an indelible mark on us and our publications!
Those of you who know Mr. McGraw know how he makes the AP US Government class interesting and relevant. Michael thrived in his class, enjoying every lecture and discussion. In particular, he liked how Mr. McGraw was able to explain concepts so naturally and everyone was always engaged in the topic or issue. “As my generation becomes increasingly involved in our country’s politics, taking his class gave me a really great understanding of how the government works,” Michael said. Taking it at the same time as Journalism was also really nice because I would talk about current events in Bell 1 Journalism then be able to recognize how they tie into the government in Bell 2 with Mr. McGraw.
Michael is the first to admit that his CHC success story extends beyond the classroom. When he was a freshman, he was a part of the Robotics Club and mainly worked on programming. He recalled, “I didn’t really know what I was doing since I had no prior experience, but I think it was a good one. I was working in a group, trying something different outside of regular classes, and I got to meet new people in different grades, so I think all of those experiences served me well when I was adjusting to Upper School.”
As a sophomore, he auditioned for the Upper School play, Tartuffe, because he enjoyed acting out Romeo and Juliet in his English class. Remembering that time, he shared, “Little did I know how fun and exciting theater would be! I looked forward to every rehearsal knowing that I would have a great time with the rest of the cast. Since then, I stage-managed the Grades 5-7 Musicals The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka Jr., acted, sang, and/or danced in Legally Blonde: The Musical, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mamma Mia!, and The Laramie Project, and then directed my own SNL-inspired sketch comedy night for this year’s Student Directed Play.” If not for the pandemic, we would have seen Michael in The Addams Family as Uncle Fester.
Of all the productions he was involved in, Mamma Mia! was his favorite. He said, “A lot of the cast was made up of people I had performed with in Legally Blonde and The Curious Incident, so I already had a lot of friends that were all there to put on the best show possible. I also had more experience with acting, singing, and dancing, so while still a challenge, it wasn’t as difficult. One of my favorite moments from the show was with Aidan Kale (‘19) and Stock Watson (‘19) when we had to go from singing into a microphone backstage to bolting to the other side of the auditorium so we could enter on time. I also remember how Aidan, Stock, John Ermini (‘19), Eric Clark (‘20), and I had to do a quick change into our disco outfits for the final number of the show, and it was so chaotic. Some of us grabbed the wrong costumes, others couldn’t get their shoes off... I think I actually broke the clothes rack and made it fall down on the last night, but it was okay since we wouldn’t need it anymore.” Those powerful, positive memories would never have been possible without Mrs. Fluharty who was such an awesome director. Michael shared, “She works so hard to help us put on a great show every single time and really cares about us.”
Mrs. Liz Stello, Director of College Counseling, remembers how Michael impressed her as an 8th grader when, after winning the Middle School Spelling Bee, he competed in the Scripp’s Regional Spelling Bee televised on WHRO. Since that time, she has watched him develop into the talented, independent young man he is today. In particular, she praised his presentation on latex allergies, for which he researched, wrote, published, and presented to the entire Upper School. Michael’s mom is highly allergic to latex, and he educated our students and faculty about how dangerous - even lethal - the airborne particles from latex balloons and gloves (and other products) can become.
Likewise, Michael has nothing but praise for the “Wonder Women” of College Counseling. He specifically wanted to give a shout out to Mrs. Stello, Ms. Baytops, and Ms. Stone for all they have done. As an appreciative senior, he said, “I’m really grateful for all of the essays they’ve read, letters they’ve written, applications they’ve helped me understand, transcripts they’ve sent me at the last minutes, and materials they’ve submitted. They’ve helped and supported me more times that I can count, and I want to make sure they know how much I appreciate their hard work.
Other faculty shout outs go to Mrs. Gregory who made everything in Honors Chemistry and AP Chemistry easier to understand, to Ms. Johnson who has so much energy and spirit and made Advisory and Peer Leaders so much fun, and to Mrs. Clay (this feels strange talking about myself) for her passion for the subject and all the encouragement and support she’s given me in Journalism and life. More than anything, though, Michael wants to thank his family: “I am so thankful for everything my parents have done for me. Knowing that all of my hard work and all of their sacrifices are paying off and that I’m going to have an amazing next four years is the best thing I could ask for. My mom gave me my mantra during an orchestra audition when she told me to “play it like you mean it.” Since then, I’ve tried to do everything I can to do my best with no regrets, whether that relates to music, academics, writing, or theater. My dad is always full of dad jokes that sometimes make me laugh and has plenty of “dadvice” to share with me for nearly every occasion. My brother Andy (‘11) has always been supportive of me and everything I do and I really appreciate that.”
When asked what advice he would offer to his younger CHC peers, he said, “Take advantage of every opportunity possible. Though I was very busy and stressed with balancing everything in my life, I did everything I felt I could handle to try new things. If the opportunity wasn’t available to me at first, I made it happen so that I could do it. Don’t be afraid to go after what you want. Take that class you’re interested in. If you’re athletic, try out for a new sport. If you’re artistic or musical, sign up for an art or music class, or try out for the play. Start a new club. Even if you don’t have experience, it’s so easy to get involved and try something new, so just go for it!”
In our countless conversations over the past two years, Michael has loved sharing his ideas, his dreams, and his tech-savvy knowledge with me. He represents a unique balance - confidence with humility, intelligence with humor, and leadership with sensitivity. I am certainly a better person for having known him. I have loved being a trusted teacher who believes in all that he can be. Through music, academics, drama, journalism, and our CHC community, he found his place and his voice. Michael, my wish for you is that you’ll continue to ask questions, help solve problems, and work beyond others’ expectations - in your mom’s words, “Play it like you mean it.” After all, that’s the way you’ve found so much success already. I can only imagine what that continued mantra will bring!