Teens on the Fast Track

Written by Madoline Markham

It all started with a search for teenagers doing things outside the box. The ones we found wowed us with their radio shows, set lists, blogs, and race cars, but more than that they overwhelmed us with their unrelenting passion and the initiative they take to translate it into action. What follows is our attempt to capture their effervescence just before their entrance to adulthood.

It doesn’t matter that they might not make it to the football game Friday night or to homecoming, that they might not spend as much time hanging out with friends or going to the movies. Because it’s passion that drives them, that gives them life.

The Race Car Builder/Driver
Sydney McKee, The Altamont School, Age 18

Photo by Beau Gustafson

Photo by Beau Gustafson

Take senior Sydney McKee for example. She rebuilt a Spec Miata named Penny this summer at a garage, Alabama Gearheads, downtown. She stripped the interior down to a metal box, put in a bucket seat and racing clutch, and modified the suspension and brakes to improve its handling—all with mentorship from mechanic Robert Odom. This January, she will race competitively for the first time at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. No big deal, right?

She’ll miss homecoming this fall for a race (she spends most weekends away these days), and this will be her first year of school to not play basketball. After a long day on the track she’s almost fallen asleep at dinner. She admittedly doesn’t have much down time, especially as she works to pay for car parts and travel expenses, but it’s a trade-off she chooses.

Whenever Sydney pulls up to the track, though, her heart starts to race. Driving is addictive, she says: “There isn’t another feeling like it. You’ve got the balance of this great machine you have but also the danger of it and the emotional connection you have.”

This year Sydney has driven tracks at Barber Motorsports Park, Road Atlanta, Sebring, and Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Racing in Arizona in events on professional racetracks with no score keeping known as Driver’s Experience. For her, it’s both terrifying and thrilling. She feels the danger on each twist and turn. “You are always on that level of fear… because you are teetering on the edge of life or death,” she says. “You’re having to push yourself.”

A self-proclaimed “total physics nut,” Sydney is in her third year of physics (yes, in high school) and gets almost as excited to see how science connects with cars as she does when she gets birthday money she can spend on car parts. This year she’s doing an independent study at her school where she works in the garage and writes papers on topics like the physics of braking.

“You have to put yourself in a completely different mindset,” she says of driving on road tracks. “The biggest thing is your vision. You have to be thinking four turns in advance and looking two turns in advance. You want to look way far ahead, but it’s super unnatural so you have to teach yourself.”

The Country Music Star
Jackson Capps, Hewitt-Trussville High School, Age 16

Photo by Dez Wilson

Photo by Dez Wilson

Like Jackson Capps, there was a moment of exhilaration when Sydney just knew the race track was where she wanted to be. For Jackson, it was when he stepped on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to play “Farmer’s Blues” with Marty Stewart and the Fabulous Superlatives, his favorite band in Nashville. “That was when I knew it’s what I wanted to do,” he says.

That was four years ago. Today his goal is to move to Nashville within the next year and start recording an album. In the meantime, he plays in Birmingham and Nashville, as well as nearby cities like Cullman, Montgomery, Guntersville, and Perdido Key to help grow his fan base. He performs a lot of Hank Williams Jr. songs and knows the crowd will sing along to “Wagon Wheel” or “Sweet Caroline.” Around Birmingham, he’s played at Rogue Tavern, The Nick, and Workplay.

Jackson grew up on Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and later got into Memphis rockabilly (Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins) and the Delta blues (Muddy Waters, etc.), collecting vinyl and spinning it. Today these sounds are the soul of his music. He started playing guitar at age 8 and performed “Walk the Line” live at Famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville at age 10. From there, he started playing at more bars and in round robins in Nashville.

Most people are surprised by how young Jackson is, guessing he is 18-21 years old instead of 16. He thinks his age gives him an advantage in the country music world. “My margin of error is very small, and I hear the window to make it is 18 to 21,” he says. Within five years he wants to be playing all over the country.

Jackson’s favorites are songs with substance, purpose, and a story, and that’s often what he chooses to write. One of his favorites, “Will I Sing,” is about justifiable homicide. “It makes people stop because the story is really something,” he says.

The Radio Show Host
Darby Jack Gustafson, Alabama School of Fine Arts, Age 17

Photo by Beau Gustafson

Photo by Beau Gustafson

Like Jackson, Darby Jack Gustafson also likes that he is creating something that lives on and has an impact on the outside world, far beyond high school walls. Each Sunday night Darby Jack goes into Substrate Radio’s studio in Woodlawn and records Darby Jack’s Music Shack, a show that streams online (you can also listen to it on the “Tune In” app).

“I am proud that I am actually doing something,” he says. “I love giving something to the world, even something so minute as a little bit of talk about someone’s influences. When you listen to my show, you learn something. I don’t want it to be mindless banter.”

Each week Darby Jack features a band and the influences that created their sound in a chronological order. His favorite episode is, not surprisingly, his favorite band, LCD Sound System. For it he played music from Silver Apples, an old band that uses synthesizers, and David Bowie to show their glam rock aspect.

“There are a lot of very interesting ties that are created between bands and how certain bands from certain areas are influenced by different people,” he says. “It’s an intertwined web of music that you stumble upon and cross over more intersections every time you do another show. Who knew that Ryan Paris would be associated with Matt DeMarco?”

When A Giant Dog, up-and-coming band out of Austin, Texas, played at Saturn recently, Darby Jack interviewed them after the show and worked it into that week’s show. Most weeks, though, the show is based on his own prep work that takes him most of the day on Sunday. “I do a lot of research,” he says. “It’s sort of like writing a term paper every week.”

As an “unintended side effect,” doing the show has improved his time management and his grades. Yes, he has less time for friends, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s something that I really, really, really love doing, so I don’t regret one minute of it,” he says. “Every time I do the radio show I’m so happy to do it, I think it’s so fun.”

The UAB Researcher
Armeen Barghi, Oak Mountain High School, Age 17

Photo by Beau Gustafson

Photo by Beau Gustafson

Fellow high school senior Armeen Barghi used the word “amazing” in reference to his research at UAB almost as many times in his interview as Darby Jack said “really.” “I just love learning about the intricacies of the human body,” Armeen says. “It’s truly amazing how you don’t think about how people are researching behind the scenes and how it combines with health policy to form a better experience.”

Last year, Armeen Barghi met Dr. Lori McMahon at a neurology conference for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows—something he decided to attend on his own to better determine his research interests—and started to talk to her about her research with protein modification. Before long, they had arranged for him to work in her lab at UAB.

There he has the opportunity to help with research pertaining to the effect of electrocurrents in the hippocampus in the brain of mice. “It’s absolutely crazy,” he says. “It’s amazing to see what the brain can do, and analyzing it on the computer.”

Armeen also studied under Dr. Edward Taub through UAB’s Teenaged Volunteer program. There he helps conduct MRI and MRS scans and work with stroke and traumatic brain injury patients to see how well they mature their non-dominant arm when their dominant arm is constrained. Finally, he sees the clinical part of that lab shadowing Dr. Victor Mark, screening patients to make sure they are qualified for therapy.

In his time at UAB, Armeen has participated in weekly lab meetings, discussed how rats react to toxins with graduate students, presented his discoveries to Ph.D. students, and collaborated with world-class faculty. He even got trained in MRI level one safety while he was at it. “You never stop learning, and in these labs it’s definitely true,” he says.

All his research has taken place even alongside (or in between) the six AP classes he took his junior year and the seven he is taking this year as a senior. “If you like the subject and love learning, it’s like you are not even learning anything it just flows into your mind,” he says. With a GPA of 4.57, he’s the first in his class, but he also found time somehow to help start a competitive table tennis club at his school.

The Syrian Refugee Documenter
Zoe Zahariadis, The Altamont School, Age 18


“To see a mother bring her entire family to a new country, including her autistic son, without a clear-cut idea of the future both breaks my heart and motivates me. It breaks my heart because these refugees are so incredibly wonderful, and to know that they might not receive asylum crushes me. I don’t want them to go back. I want them to live the life that they were intended to live, a life full of happiness and joy and opportunity. It is so cheesy, but everyone deserves that.” -Zoe Zahariadis, writing on her blog Students for Solidarity

Zoe Zahariadis was equally busy this summer on a different sort of project. Most summers she travels to Greece to visit her dad’s family (he grew up there), but this year she wanted to do something too. She’d read about the Syrian refugee crisis, so she took the initiative for she and her dad to spend time in Lesbos, Greece, where 90,769 refugees had arrived by sea as of June 25, 2016. The city is a couple of hours away from where most of her extended family lives. “I knew there was a problem, and I knew I had to do something,” she explains. “But I didn’t know until I went there what I would do.”

While in Lesbos, Greece, Zoe Zahariadis came across a Life Jacket Necropolis made from thousands of jackets collected from boats that come ashore. Knowing she hadn’t ever seen a photo of it on the news, she took a picture to share with others once she got back home. “It was a really heartbreaking moment because you see all the life jackets of all the refugees, and you have no idea if they made it there alive,” she says.

While in Lesbos, Greece, Zoe Zahariadis came across a Life Jacket Necropolis made from thousands of jackets collected from boats that come ashore. Knowing she hadn’t ever seen a photo of it on the news, she took a picture to share with others once she got back home. “It was a really heartbreaking moment because you see all the life jackets of all the refugees, and you have no idea if they made it there alive,” she says.

After arriving in Lesbos, they started driving around, talking to volunteers from camps and people they met on the street, as well as anyone in camps that she was allowed to enter. “I didn’t know it was so bad because no one really talks about that here,” she says. “Going and talking to people and actually seeing the reality of the situation, I really fully realized how terrible it was.”

Zoe says she could easily pick out refugees when she saw them walking around on the street. “They have the look on their face,” she says. “You can tell that they don’t want to be there. It was someone who has suffered so much, a little hollow, beaten down, and broken. The borders are closed, so they really have no way out. The majority of them didn’t want to go to Greece, but they are stuck there.”

As she was experiencing all of this and talking with people, Zoe took photos and notes about what she saw, what she was feeling, and how her opinions were changing. When she got home, she started a blog
(studentsforsolidarity.wordpress.com/blog/) to write about her unique viewpoint as someone who had been where she had been and seen what she had seen, complete with photos of course.

“What I’m trying to do is to get people to realize that this is an issue that affects all of us,” she says. “These are still citizens of the world. We all share a similar hope or dream. We all want to do something we love. We all want to find happiness.”


One of the first places Zoe Zahariadis came across in Lesbos was Skala Sikaminias, a first stop for refugees. They are brought there after arriving on shore to change clothes, get food, shower, use the bathroom, and rest before going to Moria Detention Center.

Zoe would love to see the U.S. and other European countries take in more refugees, but she’s starting with telling everyone she knows about what she saw and using her blog to encourage people to donate money for basic supplies at Lesvos Solidarity-Pikpa, one of the camps she visited. She’s talked to classes at her school, held a bake sale to raise awareness, and is working to hold a documentary screening and photo exhibit.

“I wanted to bring it back here, and I wanted people to be more aware of the issue so that they could realize this is a greater issue and a horrible thing that’s going on,” she says. “The portrayal here in the media is a lot more like, ‘This is an issue. These people were bombed. Now they are here.’ Not like: ‘This is the journey, these are their names, this is what they want, they don’t have enough food, they don’t have clothes, they don’t have enough water.’”

The Actor
Maxwell Ross, Homeschooled, Age 16

Photo by Kristie LaRochelle/KP Studios. Stylist: Tabitha Boyd.

Photo by Kristie LaRochelle/KP Studios. Stylist: Tabitha Boyd.

While Zoe has to work her blogging and advocacy work in outside of a regular school schedule, Maxwell Ross started home schooling in ninth grade to be more flexible for acting jobs. Today he works his school schedule around his acting schedule, trying to get his work done before a trip where he will be filming all day.

This summer Maxwell Ross filmed Gulf Coast Detectives for Alabama Public Television.

This summer Maxwell Ross filmed Gulf Coast Detectives for Alabama Public Television.

When we interviewed him in October, he had just booked five projects in the previous two weeks, including an episode of Homicide Hunter and a comedy series called Thespians. He’d recently finished shooting a documentary for Alabama Public Television called Gulf Detectives, and roles in short films My Dolly and Half Pint were on deck.

On set, he especially enjoys when he really gets into the moment and is vulnerable emotionally to the point where he doesn’t know how things will play out exactly. For him, acting requires a lot of decisions. One scene could be played out 50 different ways. Getting in character is also a challenge he enjoys, particularly if his life is threatened. “I put myself in the mentality that I might die,” he says. “It’s scary but it’s fun
getting scared.”

Maxwell Ross attends the premier of BloodType, a mini-series about zombies where he played a character named Dimitrie.

Maxwell Ross attends the premier of BloodType, a mini-series about zombies where he played a character named Dimitrie.

Maxwell acted in his first commercial at age 6. His mom remembers being surprised by how focused and professional her rambunctious little boy was on set. While he was typically cast as an “All American” kid for modeling shoots in the past, now he’s finding he often gets cast as a darker character. In fact, he likes playing sinister, mysterious roles because it is the total opposite of who he is. Heath Ledger and Johnny Depp are among his favorite actors, and one of his goals is to be in a Tim Burton film. “I’d rather be successful for being weird and extraordinary versus some uniform male actor,” he says.

On average Maxwell spends about one week in total a month filming, although the schedule is always different. In September alone he filmed 12 auditions. Some can be up to four scenes, and some have to be turned in in 24 hours. Often they have a specific person in mind for a role. He’s auditioned for a Tom Cruise movie but was told he was too tall, and often he doesn’t have the hair color they are looking for.

For him, acting feels like a marathon with no finish line. He’s always working on acting or singing or dancing in classes or on his own so that at any given time when a role with those requirements comes up, he’s ready for it.

What’s Next

Young as they are, exploring their passion is giving each of these students a more specific vision to direct their future. Sydney wants to study either physics or mechanical engineering and ultimately work in the engineering side of racing. She isn’t sure if she will get into professional racing, but she is hoping to go to a college with a Formula SAE club where she can design, build, and race cars.

Darby wants to study media in college, in large part because he developed an interest in film making after creating 30-second promotional videos for his show every week. Although he’s not sure what his major will be yet, Armeen wants continue researching throughout college—and likely long term. His passion has opened his eyes to see the “colossal of diseases in the world” and how applied research can help tackle them.

Zoe always has known she wanted to do something with “political science and the world”—an idea she knew was vague—but her advocacy with refugees has honed her focus to want to go into nonprofit work with peace and conflict settings. She plans to continue similar work when she starts college next fall.

Maxwell is planning to go to college and isn’t sure yet what role acting might plan in his studies. He also likes history and biology, but he’s also open to where acting might take him.

Jackson is focused on getting to Nashville and making music. Like the others, his future isn’t certain, but there’s no doubt that what he is pursuing now is shaping him into who he will become. “If it wasn’t for music, I wouldn’t be anywhere close to who I am as a person,” he says.

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