I was going to Arkansas to do one particular story. Period. But the flight schedules left me just enough time to do an additional story. So I asked Monty, my local contact, if he had any suggestions.
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “since you asked—how about Rochelle Abram up in Bentonville?”
I had never worked with Monty before. Did he really know what kind of story I was looking for? I wasn’t completely sure myself.
What I didn’t want was to put some super-gifted super-achiever on a pedestal and make everybody else feel inadequate. Maybe I was just looking for an ordinary kid who has some qualities worth writing about.
I grabbed pencil and paper. “So tell me about Rochelle, Monty.”
He began, and mentally I responded to each point. “… multi-talented …” (The Church has lots of multi-talented kids.) “… state championships in gymnastics …” (We’ve done gymnast stories.) “… has done very well scholastically …” (That’s better, but—) “… a fine influence among the youth here …” (Okay. Now I’m listening.)
On the map, the road between Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and Bentonville looks fairly straight. In reality, it has more twists and turns than a soap opera plot, more bad grades than my fifth-grade report card. But since it winds among beautiful green hills, past some delightful little towns and villages, you don’t mind too much.
With Monty as guide, we found the Abram home, nestled among tall trees on Trail’s End Road, the driveway full of cars. This was Rochelle’s graduation night. Family and friends had started to gather, and it promised to be a little hectic.
Jerry Abram, Rochelle’s dad, greeted us warmly, pulled us into the house with a car salesman’s handshake, and introduced me to some of the family as we moved through the living room. A young woman approached from a hallway and he announced, “This is Rochelle.”
I doubted that boys had to be bribed to take her to the prom. Light blue-green eyes, warm smile and perfect white teeth, reddish-blond hair framing an oval face and fair complexion—Jed, my photographer, was going to have an easy time of it. But my anxiety about trying to do a story on a too-perfect girl had increased.
We discussed a few details, like what she would wear for the photographer and how much time we had before she had to go to commencement exercises. Then we went out onto the deck at the back of the house and sat down at a wrought iron table. It was after 5:00 P.M., and the tall trees that surround the house cast lacy shadows over us. I turned on my tape recorder, and we began to talk while Jed circled about, taking picture after picture.
First, just to break the ice, we talked about school and friends. I learned that Rochelle’s circle of friends includes LDS youth in the larger town of Fayetteville, 30 minutes away. “We just get together on weekends and do stuff and have a lot of fun.” Like what? “Just about everything. We like to hike and camp and fish and do all the tomboyish things,” she laughs. “We’ve also had dinner parties with the guys.” Pretty normal so far.
Before coming to Arkansas, I had talked some more to Monty and others about Rochelle, and everybody mentioned gymnastics. So I asked, and learned that she started in the sixth grade and began competing in seventh grade. “And you took state honors—first place,” I prompted.
“Yes, I got first place in uneven bars in the state high school competitions last year and this year.” She paused. “And I got first place in floor exercises in the USGF (U.S. Gymnastics Federation) competition this year.” Another slight pause. “I enjoy it; it’s a lot of fun.”
Fun? The closest I’ve come to a back flip was on an icy morning a few winters ago. But I know that even for the talented, gymnastics training is punishingly difficult. “What has it done for you?”
“It’s taken up a lot of my time, and it’s a lot of hard work, but it teaches you patience and endurance. It’s kind of hard sometimes because you want to learn a trick and be good, but you have to work at it. And it’s really discouraging sometimes. But it’s given me more confidence in myself because when you do well you feel better about yourself.”
As Rochelle talked, I studied her face and listened to the inflections in her voice. No hint of false modesty. Others confirmed that she doesn’t talk freely about her accomplishments, even to her parents. You get the impression that she does things for the joy of doing—not for the trophies and certificates, but for the satisfaction of tackling something tough and doing it as well as she possibly can.
She treats school the same way, taking the challenging advanced placement courses instead of going for the easy A. I commented on the fact that she would be attending BYU on a four-year academic scholarship instead of going to some college on a gymnastics scholarship. She just laughed. Gymnastics may be fun and challenging, but it isn’t her life. Rochelle will be studying things like biology and chemistry. “I want to pursue a career in a health-related field, probably in some area of research,” she said.
What does she see herself doing ten years down the road? “Hopefully a mission, marriage, and a family.”
We took a break for a few minutes. Jed needed photos in a different setting, and I wanted to talk to Rochelle’s parents.
Jerry Abram came out and sat down. “Rochelle is not a spectator; she is a participant,” he said when I asked him to sum up his daughter. “I don’t know what she’ll contribute to the Church—whether she’ll ever be a Relief Society or Young Women president—but I know what she’ll contribute to other people. She always has time for others.”
For example? “In our stake there was a young man, a ninth grader, who was not participating. So Rochelle went to his house every morning, woke him up if necessary, and took him to early-morning seminary. It wasn’t an assignment; she just did it. I asked her about it, and she said, ‘It’s there to do.’”
When Jerry Abram talks about his daughter, there is both pride and some wonder in his voice as he discusses her skills and accomplishments. But it was when we talked about her qualities that his eyes became moist, his voice slightly husky. Asked about Rochelle’s spiritual gifts, he said, “She excels in the same way. She craves spiritual knowledge.”
I asked Rochelle’s mother, Mary, what her daughter’s best quality is. Her first thought was, “She is a true, sincere friend.” Then, as she continued to speak about Rochelle’s relationships with others: “It’s her commitment to Christ and to gospel standards.”
Commitment to Christ. I thought back on something that everyone but Rochelle had talked about so far—the death of Rochelle’s fraternal twin sister, Rhonda, in an auto accident just 11 months earlier.
When Rhonda was killed, two other girls also died in the one-car rollover. Both of them, Kathryn and Michele, were also LDS and close friends of both of the Abram sisters. The tragedy shook the town. Yet the Christ-centered faith of Rochelle and her family not only carried them through, but became a blessing to many others.
Hundreds of townspeople attended the joint funeral for Rhonda and Kathryn that was held in the LDS chapel. Michele’s funeral was two days later. Many commented afterward that they had always been taught that Mormons are not Christians. Now they knew otherwise. And a dozen or so have since come into the Church after being fellowshipped by Rochelle and her family.
A little later in the evening Rochelle and I talked again. The shadows had lengthened further and a light breeze toyed idly with the leaves. Through the closed glass doors you could faintly hear the growing crowd of friends talking and laughing. But out where we were it was quiet enough to hear the calls of insects and birds.
“Do you mind if we talk about Rhonda for a minute?”
Her gaze was direct and open as she said that was fine.
I asked her how her sister’s death had affected her.
“It makes me want to be a better person. She was such a great example—almost perfect.”
Like many of her answers it was short and to the point. I guess I could have followed up, tried to draw her out. But her parents had commented on how deeply she has felt the loss of her sister and how private she is about her grief. What would be the point in prying further? Instead, after a short silence, for some reason I changed the subject and asked, “What do you fear most?”
This time she paused. Her soft voice took on a slightly different quality as she answered. “Not being accepted, I guess.”
The surprise must have registered on my face. She laughed at herself and at her answer, as though she realized how silly it might sound to someone else, someone aware of her accomplishments.
I sat back and looked at this young woman from a small town in the northwest corner of Arkansas. Rochelle Abram—who wins titles in gymnastics. Loves to swim in the creek with family and friends. Is graduating with high honors. Recently shot a hole in her brother’s bedroom window with a BB gun while trying to hit a slow-flying bug. Eats peanut butter and jelly for Thanksgiving dinner because she doesn’t like meat and vegetables. Needed two full days to clean her room before company came.
It was time for Rochelle to go into the house and finish getting ready for her graduation. I looked down at my tape recorder and notebook and thought about the story contained on tape, on paper, and in my memory. Monty was right. She is worth writing about. Hooray for anybody who has gifts, develops them as well as possible, and is modest about them. Three cheers for those who accomplish things for the sheer joy of doing.
But far more importantly, I decided Rochelle was worth writing about because she excels in some ways that everyone can excel in: commitment to Jesus Christ and his gospel, putting aside our own fears and tragedies and reaching out to others. Even a Rochelle Abram sometimes worries about acceptance. It’s a natural fear most of us have. But instead of holding back, afraid to stand out, she goes ahead and does when “it’s there to be done.”
Next time Monty recommends a story, I’m ready to listen.