RayeAnne DeSoto, left, and Brett Palmer, seen Thursday in the Little Theater at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner, both received national recognition recently. Palmer was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar, becoming the first student from the school to earn the honor, according to school officials. Palmer was able to nominate DeSoto for the Distinguished Teacher award, which she won. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — Brett Palmer, a senior at Gardiner Area High School, was recently named a U.S. Presidential Scholar, one of the country’s top honors awarded annually to high school seniors. He is the first from the central Maine school to win the prize, school officials said.  

Palmer and Sirohi Kumar of Bar Harbor, the only other Maine student honored this year, are among 161 students to have received the award after 5,000 students applied nationally, including 80 from Maine.

The U.S. Department of Education invited Palmer to apply for the program based on his high standardized test scores.

When he got the email earlier this school year, he had never heard of the program. 

“I was surprised, to be honest. I put a lot of time into it, but I was on vacation so it was a pleasant surprise,” said Palmer, who completed the application over February break, on the way from Boston home to West Gardiner. 

As part of the program, Palmer nominated RayeAnne DeSoto for the “Distinguished Teacher” award, which she won. He has known the K-12 REACH Program coordinator for nine years throughout his time in Maine School Administrative District 11. REACH is the district’s program for gifted and talented students. 


“It’s just amazing how much she goes out of her way to help people, I think I would need three sets of hands to list off all the positions she has – Tiger Food Pantry, drama, gifted and talented. She does everything,” he said. 

Brett Palmer wears the U.S. Presidential Scholar and other medals Thursday at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Just last year, DeSoto won the Maine Teacher of the Year award, so when she received a large manila envelope in the mail from the federal Department of Education, she thought maybe the agency had noticed the state honor. 

As she said to Palmer, students can “rarely surprise her.” 

“I said to Brett, I’ve been carrying this around every day since I received it,” said DeSoto, referring to the actual contents of that envelope: her Distinguished Teacher award. “I thought maybe they saw my Teacher of the Year award, but then I saw and I said to Mrs. Riddle, ‘I’m so glad I’m wearing waterproof mascara today.'” 

In the nine years the pair has known each other, DeSoto has seen Palmer grow from being a third grade student to a young adult planning to go off to college in the fall. They first met when Palmer joined the REACH program in elementary school. 

Then, in middle school, Palmer was a part of the drama club that DeSoto runs. In high school, Palmer would see DeSoto in the halls and for a period of time, he volunteered with her to help with the middle school drama club. 


He even dressed as her on “dress as your teacher day,” where he joked he wore sunglasses on the top of his head, a scarf and her signature silver bracelets on his wrists. 

“Brett is modest, but as a middle school student, he came up to this high school to take math courses,” said DeSoto. “When we were talking about it, I asked him if he would feel OK sitting in with the high schoolers, and he was like, ‘Yes!’ To see the joy on his face when he got back after the math, because that was his passion and strength at the time — that’s what you want to see as a teacher.” 

The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program was established in 1964 and each year, around 5,000 high school seniors apply for the award.

Students can become presidential scholars through three pathways — most are chosen based on SAT and ACT test scores; around 20 are chosen based on a combination of academic achievement and talent in the visual arts, performing arts or creative writing; and some additional 20 are chosen for their accomplishments in technical and education fields. 

The program invites the 20 females and 20 males with the highest standardized test scores in each state to apply, according to its website.



The application process, according to Palmer, was extensive and took him about a week to complete, despite doing it last-minute on vacation, which now he laughs about. 

For one of the essay topics, Palmer had to send in a photo of something important to him and write about why. He chose his black belt, which he received when he was 15 — he has taken karate for 10 years, more than half his life, he said. 

“I had to write, I believe it was five or six essays — it was around seven pages of just writing,” he said. “The invitation to apply was based on SAT scores, but from then on, it was just about getting to know me. I wrote seven pages about myself — it’s hard, but I did it.” 

One of Brett Palmer’s digital artworks Courtesy of Brett Palmer

Another essay Palmer had to write was on advice he would give to a future student. He wrote about learning to “say no” because “you don’t have to do everything,” which was admittedly hard for him, he said. 

Being a member of the student government, student council, math team, Spanish club, drama club, civil rights club and National Honor Society left Palmer with little time for himself to pursue his passion, which is art.  

By dividing his time and taking his own advice, he started to draw realistic portraits and dive into digital artwork. He realized that exploring this interest did not always mean doing something “college friendly,” but he was able to learn more about himself through the process. 


“I struggle with the culture we are moving to where people are running for (class) offices because it looks good on their college application, and I’ve been seeing that a lot and it’s hard for me,” he said. “I didn’t get my black belt because I thought, ‘This is going to make me a Presidential Scholar,’ or I didn’t run for class president because I thought it would get me into a certain college. I did it because I wanted to.” 

Brett Palmer, left, gets a hug Thursday from gifted and talented teacher RayeAnne DeSoto at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

To congratulate him on his award, Palmer said Gov. Janet Mills and Sen. Susan Collins sent him a letter.

Next year, he plans to attend the University of Maine in Orono, where he plans to double major in computer science and new media, a hybrid art-and-computer-science program for people looking to go into web design, software development and related fields. His merit status granted him free room and board.

In a normal year, he and DeSoto would be able to travel to the White House for a tour, but because of the pandemic, he said the event is virtual this year. President Joe Biden will make a prerecorded appearance, Palmer said.

And this Saturday, Palmer will walk across the stage of the Augusta Civic Center with his diploma.

“I’m very excited,” he said.

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