Khamile Whitby’s teachers will tell you he smiles all the time. That fits since his first name rhymes with “smile.”
But the salutatorian of Norview High School and soon-to-be Massachusetts Institute of Technology student didn’t always have a reason to smile.
“My family was homeless until I was 3 or 4 years old,” says Whitby who lives in Broad Creek with his maternal grandfather, Wayne Credle Sr. Thanks to Credle, Whitby and his three brothers and sister have a home and a stable life.
“His path was long and winding, but he’s worked hard, and he deserves his great success,” Credle says.
Whitby, who plans to major in mechanical engineering, earned a 790 (out of a possible 800) on his math SAT as well as a perfect score on the SAT subject test for math. Scores aside, he also is a leader in and out of the classroom.
Whitby heads the robotics team at Norview and was also selected to be part of the Leadership Center for the Sciences and Engineering (LCSE), a Norfolk Public Schools program for gifted students.
In recognition of his leadership and impact on the group, the other LCSE students physically lifted Whitby up on their shoulders during their graduation ceremony last month.
With no fewer than four scholarships to his name, Whitby credits his faith in God as a reason for his success.
And he’s had to overcome more than a challenging family situation. Whitby also has a medical condition called retinitis pigmentosa, an eye condition that may eventually cause him to become totally blind.
As a young child, his family and teachers noticed he would bump into items on the floor. A trip to the eye doctor when he was in sixth grade revealed the diagnosis.
“I have no peripheral vision, and I need a cane when I walk at night,” says Whitby, adding that if he reads too long and the print is too small, he gets eye fatigue and needs to stop.
“It takes me a lot longer to do my assignments, so I have to be on top of them.”
But, he says, his condition has also helped him. He’s had to become his own advocate, initiating contact with teachers and other adults, something other teens might find difficult.
One of those teachers who has had a big influence on Whitby is his eighth-grade math teacher, Christine Gilbert.
While teaching at Ruffner Academy near Brambleton Avenue, she recognized early on how brilliant Whitby was. The following year, Whitby began his freshman year at Norview. The year after, Gilbert was transferred to the same high school but never told her former student.
“His math classroom was next to mine. He was shocked to see me on that first day,” recalls Gilbert. Her goal for the year was to make Whitby smile. “Every time I saw him, I would say, ‘there’s my Khamile!’”
Slowly, he did smile and loves to smile now.
Gilbert is happy she is still part of her former student’s life. Her phone entry for Whitby still says “My Khamile.”
As he prepares himself for the preeminent engineering program in the country, Whitby is ready for his future.
“This is too important to give up because it’s hard,” he says.
He’s visited the school three times and was impressed by how large MIT is and how great its commitment to diversity is.
He has ambitious plans for the future. After apprenticing with a mechanical engineer for six years after graduation, he hopes to return to Norview and to the region to speak to students, maybe even establishing a program to help other underserved students like himself.
Warren Warsaw, firstname.lastname@example.org