Sulphur Springs High School recognized Matthew Chase Harper as valedictorian and Nathan Kendall Little as salutatorian of the SSHS Class of 2021 during a small reception in the school library, featuring cookies, cupcakes and flavored drinks with administrators, their parents and media.
Harper, son of Lisa and Nathan Couch and Jaime and Amy Harper, graduates with a 4.45 grade point average.
The 17-year-old is the second in his family to be among the top honor graduates his senior year. Matthew said his sister, Sarah Harper, earned salutatorian honors in 2018 with a 4.25 grade point average. She served as an example of what he could accomplish with tons of hard work and extracurricular activities.
Harper extends thanks to his parents sister, especially for making the transition from a 1A school to SSISD in 6th grade easier. Sarah, Matthew said, had it harder, having to make that adjustment in high school, he noted
“I owe so much thanks to my parents. They have been so supportive of me my entire life,” Harper said. “They have pretty high expectations of me, but those expectations are not hard. They want me to live to be something, but there’s no pressure. So, I don’t feel stress, I just feel supported.”
Harper plans to attend Trinity University, but as yet is undecided what the future hold for him. He plans to take a range of courses in an effort to find what suits him best.
“I just plan to go to college and try to find something I enjoy doing, and pursue that to the fullest extent that I can,” Harper said.
He feels Trinity University will be a good fit because of the school’s strong liberal arts program, which he is leaning toward, and has a strong faculty.
Salutatorian Kendall Little, son of Katherine and Kevin Little, graduates with a 4.32 GPA. He considers it an honor to be the second highest ranked student in his class.
The 18-year-old salutatorian offers thanks foremost to his parents who have been present and supported him through everything that life has brought their way, including the adjustment of multiple moves during his childhood.
“Whatever I wanted to participate in, whatever I felt I wanted to do, my parents just supported me as much as they could,” Little said. “They’ve just always worked hard and taught me how to live.”
Little said although his brothers were not valedictorian or salutatorian of their classes in high school, they too have served as role models for him.
“They’ve worked for where they are now. One of my brothers, he’s put in years of work in kitchens to where he’s finally made it as a full time culinary director to a chain of restaurants – just watching his work and, then another brother, he’ joined the Air Force and he is currently majoring in physics, the work, the ability he’s put in,. Just seeing them both succeed through different hardships in life is just another real inspiration for me.,” Little said.
Little plans to attend East Texas Baptist University, where he will major in Christian ministry, with a goal of working full time in the church.
The salutatorian chose ETBU not only because he loves the course program which helps prepare students for ministry work, but because of the great community around the school.
“I am very excited to get involved. They have a bunch of volunteer programs and outreach ministries, and there are things they provide on campus. They just make you feel at home. I love their course program,” Little said.
He plans to begin as a youth minister, and is excited to learn, progress in life, and grow under others leadership to eventually become a full time senior pastor. He said he felt called in the fall by God toward ministry, and had prior to that planned for a future involving mathematics.
Little offers thanks to Dr. Chris Stephens, his former pastor, who he said has “really been there for me,” showing him what humility is, how to work hard and love people, which have had a big impact on is life.
The pair are friends, fellow percussionists in the marching and concert bands and UIL competitors, and have spurred one another with a friend competition to do their very best since they began attending Sulphur Springs ISD in middle school.
“It’s nice to see the work we’ve put in has paid off,” Harper said. “It’s especially nice. We’ve always been in the top two. It’s nice to be the val and sal. it shows that our competition has also paid off.”
“We’ve been friends all throughout high school, so it’s been that kind of friendly competition, wanting to push each other, has really helped us and made us grow as people. So, I think it’s all been worth it. All the work has finally paid off. It just shows that if you do work hard, you can can really achieve,” Little said.
While Harper’s UIL focus has been mostly band and English language arts focused, Little’s UIL focus has been mostly on math. However, both Harper and Little are members of the first place Academic UIL literary criticism team, which over the weekend qualified to compete at state. Harper finishing first and Little not far behind, also qualifying the pair to compete at state based on their individual achievement as well.
This year, Harper advances to state not only as the regional literary criticism individual champion and part of the state-bound lit crit team, but also in copy editing and headline writing, which he earned second and first, respectively.
Harper is the 2018-19 Texas State UIL literary criticism champion, helping his team earn the state championship that year as well. Last year, he was also a state finalist in the Barbara Jordan Essay Competition.
In band, Harper was a member of an ensemble which earned a Division 1 ranking at the state UIL contest during the2018-19 school year. Last year, he also as a state qualifier in UIL Sole and Ensemble band competition.
Little served as percussion section leader and received the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award. He too includes being a state soloist and ensemble member among the honors he has achieved.
“I’ve been working with the AP English teacher Ms. Herman almost my entire school career. I started doing ready writing with her and she has bumped me up. I am doing all kinds of contests for her,” Harper said. “Just by working through UIL. Band has been very beneficial. It’s taught me how to study, to dedicate myself to something. I’ve just seen exponential growth in myself from participation in those programs.”
“We have been challenging each other in the same events, doing and growing all along,” Little said.
“It’s tons of work. It’s really nice that it pays off,” Harper said, noting that advancing to and winning in state UIL competitions is “kind of bitter sweet feeling because you succeed, but there are so many other people, even in your group that you’re competing with at your school that don’t advance. It’s kind of sad to see that they don’t, but it’s also nice to see that you do. It’s kind of bittersweet.
While both top students have been inducted into and serve in the National Honor Society, Little served as secretary of the organization.
Little is also a 4-year member of the Key Club and serves as a student representative on the SSISD Strategic Planning Committee.
Little and Harper praised their teachers for their contributions not only to their education and successes but those of the school as well.
“The teachers are really what make the school. They impact people’s lives almost in a way that’s indescribable. Mr. Grafton has been my UIL coach since freshman year. To see his humility, his work ethic has really inspired me to work harder in a lot of ways. Then, Ms. Herman, joining her last year in AP English and joining her this year with UIL and English again, she’s just really pushed me to a level I never actually though I’d be able to achieve. The people here have just really changed my life, impacted me in a way I’m going to be grateful for forever,” the salutatorian said.
“That’ is my number one take away – good teachers. He has a lot more experienced with Mr. Grafton than I have. I have worked with Ms. Herman so long. Her effect on me has just been – I can’t even begin to guess the rewards I will reap from the time she has mentored me. She will push you and push you until you almost break, but then you improve exponentially from it,” Harper said.
Both have also taken the hardest course level possible, including first advanced classes and the last two years Little said he has taken advance placement. Both took AP English and AP calculus. Little has attained enough college credits that he will enter ETBU just shy of being a sophomore. Harper has a few less to his credit, but has several college classes.
Outside of school, Little is involved with the youth group, and plays drums and piano with the worship band and other facets at Central Baptist Church.