Most teenagers can’t wait to get their driver’s license the day they turn 16.

Not Ryleigh Mae Emmert.

Two years later and about to graduate from high school, the 18-year-old still does not have her license.

“It would make life easier if I get it before I go to college,” she said.

Driving a car is low on Emmert’s priority list. High on her list is running the school newspaper, Indigo Ink, arguing a case with the mock trial team, writing poetry as Lewiston’s youth poet laureate, raising awareness about mental illness through the Yellow Tulip Project, advocating for Lewiston’s youth as chairwoman of the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council and, above all else, getting good grades.

Emmert is also president of the Lewiston High School Class of 2022 and Mrs. White in the school play, “Clue.”


“She balances a lot of things,” Jay Dufour, assistant principal, said. “She blows my mind on how many things she is involved in.”

“I don’t have my driver’s license because I don’t have the time,” Emmert said. “Balancing my schedule has been crazy.”

Emmert does find the time to study. She will graduate Friday at the top of her class.

Ryleigh Mae Emmert becomes emotional May 17 during the Lewiston High School Top Ten Luncheon at The Green Ladle in Lewiston. The graduating senior attended the luncheon with her mother and grandmother, and finished first in her class. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file

“Ryleigh is in so many clubs and takes such hard classes that you would think that her attention is spread thin. But that is not the case,” her former English teacher, Dave Brooks, said.

Grades have not always been at the top of Emmert’s priority list, though.

Survival was.


Emmert was born with a form of kidney cancer. The diagnosis came two months after birth. Her mother was 19 years old at the time.

Chemotherapy and removing one kidney has kept the cancer in remission.

Emmert’s family moved a lot early on and she attended elementary school in three towns prior to fourth grade.

“I was not doing too well in elementary school,” Emmert said.

She moved to Lewiston for a fresh start and settled into the fourth grade.

Her grades improved to A’s and B’s at Lewiston Middle School and she never missed a day of school.


One morning during her freshman year at Lewiston High School, Emmert was so sick that she could not get out of bed. “My kidney hurt, which is not good knowing that I only have one,” she said.

Emmert insisted on going to school, but her mother made her stay home. Later that day, Emmert was rushed to Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland for surgery.

A condition related to Emmert’s cancer kept Emmert in the hospital for another week. “The cancer did not come back. But the consequences put me back in the hospital in ninth grade,” Emmert said. “I had to miss school.”

Ryleigh Mae Emmert will graduate Friday at the top of the Lewiston High School Class of 2022. She will be the first in her family to attend college. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“Being valedictorian was not my initial goal,” she said. “But I did want good grades.

“Reading, writing and social studies come natural to me,” she said. “Math and science not so much. I’m not a math person.”

Following the second semester of her freshman year, Emmert was second in her class. “That was the turning point. It was then that I realized that being first in my class was a possibility.”


By the time her sophomore year was over, Emmert was at the top. “It was an awesome feeling because I worked really hard to get there,” she said.

“I’m not surprised,” Brooks said of Emmert being valedictorian. “With her commitment, intelligence and willpower, I’m not surprised.

“This is my 14th year of teaching and no one I have taught has had a more impressive work ethic than Ryleigh does,” Brooks said.

Emmert was raised by her mother and grandmother. She got a job the day she turned 15.

“I pay for everything, such as my clothes, myself,” she Emmert. “I don’t regret that I have to do that.”

She also does her own taxes.



Emmert developed an interest in journalism in eight grade. She is editor and chief of the school newspaper and the school yearbook.

She thought she would go to college for journalism, but then she met a guy wearing a purple cow shirt, the mascot for Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Emmert had been invited to visit there. She does not have a driver’s license, of course, so she flew instead.

After a canceled flight, another delayed flight and a missed student dinner at Williams, Emmert and a few other students who arrived late, too, were met at the airport by a guy wearing a T-shirt with a purple cow.

The man made quite the impression and took a van full of high school seniors to Taco Bell since they had all missed their scheduled dinner at the college commons.


Emmert sat in on an English class the next day and was hooked from then on. “I knew it right then. This is it,” she said.

“I wanted to be in an environment where people help each other rather than compete. Williams showed me that they care about their students,” she said.

Before heading home, Emmert bought a “Williams Mom” key chain, but she kept it a secret from her.

Emmert applied early for admission and waited.

The email response came one evening.

“I was really excited and hoped for the best,” she said. “I closed my eyes and opened the email.”


Emmert handed her mother the “Williams Mom” key chain.

Emmert is the first in her family to attend college.

“There have been a lot of unique circumstances in my life,” she said. “I had to figure it out on my own on how to get it done.”

During the Lewiston High School Top Ten Luncheon in May, “resilience” was the word picked to describe Emmert.

“It is remarkable with what Ryleigh has overcome in her life,” Brooks said.

“Ryleigh’s story is powerful,” added Dufour.

“Ryleigh is a young woman with tremendous drive,” Lewiston Youth Advisory Council adviser Dottie Perham-Whittier said.

She just won’t be driving a car … at least not yet.

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