Nothing will stop Birmingham High School valedictorian William Ress from collecting his accolades at the upcoming graduation ceremony--not the recovery from four-hour brain surgery, not the daily radiation treatments, not the fear of death.
The 17-year-old Encino senior has lost most of his hair and much of his energy since January when doctors found a brain tumor behind his right eye. But Ress keeps on with the determination that has helped earn him straight A’s through high school.
Despite advice from teachers, counselors and friends to study at home after the surgery five months ago, Ress is finishing his last three advanced placement courses on campus with his classmates.
“With a lot of people telling me to quit, I’ve really had to assert myself,” Ress said. “But I would have felt like a quitter, like I didn’t take on what I knew I could handle.”
In the early morning hours of Jan. 29, without warning, a seizure shook Ress. His rocking bed woke his parents in the next room. He was taken to a local hospital where, after a myriad of tests, doctors found the tumor. One week later, he was flown to San Francisco for surgery to remove it.
Little more than a month later, Ress was back at Birmingham, taking advanced placement courses in government, English and calculus.
Every day after school, Ress braved radiation treatments at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank that robbed him of his energy and his hair. Mingled with the professional baseball pennants, caps, posters and Little League trophies that clutter his bedroom are vivid reminders of his ordeal: the plastic mask he wore during radiation sits on a bookshelf by the door and three hospital identification wristbands are taped to the wall above his bed.
“They remind me that even though I am looking toward the future, looking toward college, I have to stop and smell the roses. I have to remember the people around me now,” said Ress, who plans to attend Brown University in Rhode Island after a year at the UC Berkeley. He will continue to receive chemotherapy.
Sitting cross-legged on his bed, a Brown University baseball cap masking his nearly bald head, Ress said of his experience: “I found out that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was.”
Although the importance of earning straight A’s faded after the surgery, Ress said, he stayed in school to regain a sense of normalcy in his life.
“I still want to do well, but it’s not the top priority anymore,” he said. “What’s more important to me is I’m finishing, that I stuck this out to completion.”
Ress grew up in a comfortable house on a quiet street in the Encino hills with his parents and older sister, who just graduated from UC Berkeley. He attended a private school for gifted students through the eighth grade, but went on to Birmingham High, as his sister had, because he wanted to meet students with backgrounds different from his own.
At first it was a shock, he said, going from an eighth-grade class of six students at The Mirman School to a campus where he knew only a handful of the 3,000 teen-agers crowding the halls. But Ress quickly immersed himself in honors classes, motivated by a desire to go to college and an inner voice that he said had always urged him to excel. Soft-spoken and with an unassuming manner, Ress made close friends and impressed his teachers and counselors.
“He is a brilliant, charming young man,” said Anita Gershten, his academic counselor at Birmingham. “He has a genuineness, a sincerity, that makes him a rare human being.”
“All of his teachers like him and respect him,” said Carmen Hermosillo, one of Ress’ Spanish teachers at Birmingham. “He’s a wonderful person.”
During high school, Ress dabbled in photography, taught himself to play harmonica and faithfully followed his favorite baseball team, the Dodgers. But most of his energy was reserved for academics.
“I was really devoted to my schoolwork,” he said.
The sudden illness forced Ress to face his mortality in a way few teen-agers ever do. The tumor became the topic of conversation at home, Ress said. His father, who is an arthritis specialist, spoke to colleagues all over the country and read everything he could about tumors. But instead of feeling despair, Ress said, the illness and the powerful support of his family and friends that it summoned helped him look to the future with more enthusiasm than ever.
“Our class song is ‘These are the Days,’ ” said Ress, who will be graduated June 16. “But I don’t think these are the days. A lot of high school students are living for now instead of looking toward the future. My life is in front of me.”