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Ledyard High senior overcomes challenges, makes a difference

Ledyard — For graduating Ledyard High School senior James Tillman, the past four years have been filled with numerous accomplishments, and some challenges.

Tillman, 18, has, among other things, attained the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Boy Scouts; as well as the rank of Ordinary in Sea Scouts, which is the second-highest level in that maritime related off-shoot of scouting. He has participated in a robotics program, an Esports video game competition club at the high school, a rowing club with the Ledyard Parks and Recreation Department, and has played trumpet in the high school's marching band.

He also has volunteered for numerous service projects through the Ledyard High Key Club, the scouts and, along with his sister, Tessa, 17, done fundraising events for Operation Smile. That organization provides dental care and facial reconstructive surgery to children in developing countries.

He has done all this while consistently maintaining a "high grade point average while taking challenging college preparatory, honors, and advanced placement classes," according to a letter of recommendation sent by Ledyard High School counselor Britney Williams Duczynski, when Tillman was seeking to be an Eagle Scout. "His dedication to academics has landed him in the top 18% of a very strong graduating class," she added.

Tillman's accomplishments actually started before high school.

At age 14, he developed a computer server for a children's video game for his hometown's public library in New Milford. He was a teaching assistant for a municipal learn-to-swim program for young children there, and a vacation Bible school counselor. He says he learned "discipline, respect, and self-confidence" through 10 years of lessons in the Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do, where he earned a black belt at age 14.

His high school career, though, started on a rough note.

He and his family were forced to move after his father, Joseph, lost his job as a highway superintendent in New Milford due to a contracting dispute with the mayor.

"It was a messy situation politically," Tillman said. "Things were said that weren't true."

His father landed a similar position with Ledyard's Parks and Recreation Department, and the family moved here in 2017, in time for Tillman to begin his freshman year at Ledyard High.

“It certainly was intimidating," he said. "I was plopped into this new school, and I didn't know a soul. I had to try to come to terms with everything that happened in my old town, had to figure out high school and restart my social life. I had no clue what to do, I was overwhelmed.”

Complicating matters was that during his freshman year, he was diagnosed with depression. "I would have trouble sleeping at night, and I would sleep in class a lot," he said. "One time. I slept through a math quiz. That was just awful. My teachers became concerned, and they contacted the guidance department, and I started to get the help I needed."

He said the situation improved substantially by the end of his freshman year. "I started to come to terms with what had happened. I was able to establish a real good circle of friends."

But his medical issues continued, as he was diagnosed during his sophomore year with attention deficit disorder.

"I was forgetting to turn in schoolwork, and not taking tests on time, because I was freaking myself out and overstressing," he said. "I'm taking medications for it, and have been seeing a wonderful therapist for two years. It's been a life-changer to be able to figure all this stuff out, and to enjoy life here."

Tillman credits all the activities he's been involved in as learning experiences in helping him become the person he is today. His time in the Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts especially have made an impact. "The whole point of scouting is to teach youth basic life lessons," he said. "It's had a huge impact on my life, especially leadership skills."

He notes his Eagle Scout project, as well as his involvement in helping other scouts with their projects, developed those skills, and helped him to learn to work with others. "Just as my fellow scouts helped me," he said, "I felt the need and the obligation to help them, as well."

Tillman's Eagle Scout project, completed last September, involved refurbishing a Revolutionary War-era cannon found in the chicken coop at the historic Nathan Lester House, and then placing it on a concrete base as part of a monument at the Gales Ferry Memorial Parklet at the intersection of Military Highway and Hurlbutt Road. Tillman says there was at least one anxious moment during the project: One of the wooden slats on the side of the base burst, with concrete leaking out. One of the parents of the scouts involved in the project rushed to a local hardware store and got a bunch of large packing straps, usually used to hold down heavy machinery, which they used to get the slat back together.

"I almost had a panic attack waiting the half-hour for the straps to arrive," Tillman said. But everything worked out OK.

Unlike some high school students, Tillman hasn't been affected by the coronavirus pandemic too much.

"Despite popular belief, I didn't mind (remote learning) much at all," he said. "It's a more relaxing experience. If class ends early, and there's nothing left to discuss, I can leave, if allowed. It's less strict. It's honestly been a good experience." He adds he was still able to stay in touch with his friends through social media, and other platforms. In-person learning has since returned at the high school.

Tillman admits he will miss seeing his friends and the structured life of high school. "This has essentially been my way of life: going to school each weekday, going to class, going to lunch, waiting for the bell to ring to go home. It's going to be a huge shift going to college."

He'll be attending Three Rivers Community College in Norwich to get an associate degree in accounting. He then plans to transfer to a four-year college to get his license to be a certified public accountant. "I got interested in this while taking a personal finance class in my third year of high school," he said. "It just kinda clicked with me, working with money, understanding the different facets of business and the economy. That was the first time I was utterly enthralled with a class."

The graduating senior tips his cap to his parents for all their help. "They've been so supportive and been there for me and my sister. They've been my rock and my lifeline."

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