When Danica Meiring was a Grade 4 pupil at Midstream College, she came eighth in her grade. Standing in the line of children at the school's prize-giving ceremony, with the children arranged according to their marks, she wondered why some of them were standing in front of her.
"I was like, ooh, this is not a nice feeling," she said.
Meiring never came eighth again. The following year, and every year after that until she matriculated in 2018, she was the dux scholar in her grade.
This week, Meiring matriculated with ten distinctions, making her one of the highest achieving pupils who wrote the Independent Examination Board (IEB) matric exams in 2018.
It was at that prize-giving in Grade 4 that she discovered that she had a drive to succeed. She surrounded herself with friends at school who also excelled academically, which meant "it wasn't cool not to do well".
While Meiring immersed herself in school life, she would wake up before dawn sometimes to do laps around the track before the school day.
Soon, achieving high marks wasn't enough for her, either. Her marks had to be the highest in the grade, or she wouldn't be satisfied.
Support from teachers, self-motivation
She also took on a host of extramural activities. By the time she reached matric, she was involved in athletics, dance, hockey, the school newspaper and even ran the school outreach programmes, making spreadsheets and managing volunteer schedules between classes, among other activities.
To achieve her tenth distinction, she opted to write both the IEB and government papers for advanced programme mathematics.
So what makes Meiring different from the other matric pupils? For one thing, Midstream provided a lot of support to its pupils, she said. The pupils were given extra tests to up their portfolio marks; access to extra papers and "lovely teachers" also helped.
But while "you have to have a brain, of course", Meiring says it is not her intelligence that makes her more successful than her peers; it is her drive.
"You have to be self-motivated," she said. Getting home at night from a long day and "finding out why your balance sheet isn't balancing is the last thing you want to do". But that's just want Meiring did.
If waking up at 04:00 to prepare for the day was required, she would do that, too.
"I would never leave a class without knowing what was happening. I'm very disciplined," she said.
No time off
But Meiring is no robot. The bubbly teenager describes herself as "goofy", and says confidence can make all the difference.
"Lots of people think they can't do it. You have to believe in yourself. You have to put the hours in and trust the hours that you put in. It's more attainable than you think," she said.
Being at the top comes with its own stresses. Competing with your peers is one thing, but when you are practically in a league of your own, trying to beat your own personal bests, the pressure can be intense.
"Getting 90% wasn't cool if it wasn't the best mark in the class. Even 96% wasn't cool if it wasn't the best." Her parents were over the moon if she got 80% for a test, never pressurising her, but Meiring knew she had to work even harder.
"You have to see it (matric) as a full-time job for the whole year. If I went out on weekends, it would be at night, after studying during the day. I don't think you can take the weekends off and expect those kinds of marks," she said.
Exhausted after a gruelling year, Meiring thought about taking some time off after matric. But it wasn't long before she realised that rest wasn't really her thing. She bristles with excitement at the mention of her plans to study medicine.
She's considering specialising in reconstructive plastic surgery one day, and not the cosmetic kind.
"My dream is to work on one of those mercy ships. I really want to help people," she said.
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