It was literally a breath of fresh air. After three years (and counting) of talk from Maine’s governor about how Maine kids don’t measure up, about how they’re looked down upon wherever they go, about how it’s their “tough luck” if they can’t afford a private high school, there stood former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell before the full Maine Legislature with a decidedly different message.

“I’ve met thousands of these young people and I can tell you, without a doubt, Maine students are as good as any students in America,” Mitchell said Tuesday morning, to rousing applause from every corner of the packed House chamber. “And if they are given the chance and the tools, they can compete with anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

The man for whom the Mitchell Institute is named knows of what he speaks. Unlike Gov. Paul LePage, who acknowledged neither the speech nor the subsequent unveiling of Mitchell’s portrait in the State House Hall of Flags, Maine’s senior statesman can back up his words with names, faces and true stories of triumph over the toughest of luck.

Stories like Jessica Boyle’s.

Seven short years ago, she was what Maine law calls a “homeless youth” – not accompanied by a parent or guardian and without “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

How Jessica came to be in such a fix is a story she’d prefer not to dwell on. What’s important is that way back in her freshman year at Bangor High School, even as she watched this friend and then that one drop out of school, something told her to stay put.

Smart girl.

“I had a friend who convinced me to switch from regular biology to honors biology,” Jessica said. “And then, it was during either the first or second semester, I got a 98.”

It made no sense: Her other courses came nowhere near the honors track. Her grades until then had never risen above C. Now, suddenly, she was acing honors biology?

It was enough for her biology teacher to sit her down one day and ask, “Are you in any other honors classes?”

“No,” replied Jessica.

“Well, you should be,” said the teacher.

By her junior year, Jessica was enrolled in every honors course she could find. She cultivated a new circle of friends, raised all those C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s, even volunteered with the high school yearbook. Still, just beyond the entrance to Bangor High School, her past beckoned.

“Some days, I would stay at school until 11 p.m.,” she said.

Seriously? Why so late?

“Because I had nowhere else to go.”

At one point, a school social worker (one of the few who knew of Jessica’s struggle to simply survive) suggested a shelter in Bangor.

Jessica, spooked at the time by recent reports of a body being found outside the shelter, would hear none of it. “I am a victim of circumstances and I am not going to victimize myself even further by living in a shelter,” she told the social worker. “I refuse.”

Besides, she had other options: One friend’s family, then another, then another came to the rescue and took her in for a few days here, a week or even a month there.

Then Bill Ames, her history teacher, quietly arranged for yet another family to take her in. Around the same time, Cary James, her chemistry teacher, got Jessica to imagine the unimaginable – going to college.

She set her sights on Colby College. And during one of her frequent visits to the high school guidance office to see what kind of financial aid, if any, she might have a shot at, Jessica heard for the first time of the coveted Mitchell Scholarship.

Each year since the program was established 20 years ago, a Mitchell Scholarship has been awarded to a deserving student at every public high school in Maine. When the next batch goes out to the class of 2014 this spring, more than $11 million will have been awarded – for as much as $6,000 per student – to just under 2,300 students from Kittery to Fort Kent.

Like Jessica, more than 60 percent are the first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Like Jessica, two-thirds of them come from families with incomes below Maine’s median. In fact, one in four come from families with annual incomes below $20,000.

Like Jessica, who spoke to me Tuesday morning from her new job as a development coordinator with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Science, 85 percent of the Mitchell scholars leave college, degree in hand, for jobs in law, politics, science, the arts . . .

And, while Jessica spends her spare time volunteering with other family trailblazers through MIT’s First Generation Project, Mitchell scholars have tallied more than 30,000 hours of community service, most of it here in Maine. In the process, they’ve become a community unto themselves, meeting regularly and supporting one another well into their professional careers.

After his family, Mitchell told his rapt audience, the scholarship program is “the most important thing in my life . . . This is a Maine program of, by and for the people of Maine.”

Hearing him sing the praises of his scholars, it was hard not to wonder if Mitchell’s comments were aimed at least in part at the governor who has so frequently bashed Maine students and the public schools that educate them. Suffice it to say that Mitchell, with his customary grace, glided through Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance with no reference whatsoever to LePage.

Still, this much is clear: For all the global accomplishments that merited his perpetual presence in the Hall of Flags, none binds Mitchell to his own humble beginnings like those scholarships and the Maine kids who so richly deserve them.

What would Jessica have told Mitchell, had she been able to come up from Cambridge and join in the applause?

“I would thank him not only for the scholarship, but also for having the foresight to know that students like me could benefit from so much more than financial assistance,” she said. “He knew that. He knew that we need mentors and networks and advice and guidance.”

And what about Mitchell? Standing by the just-unveiled portrait of a living Maine legend, what would he say to Jessica?

“What I say to all of them,” Mitchell replied with a smile. “Work hard, study hard and don’t forget where you came from.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemtiz@pressherald.com