When Mohammed Amine Elmeghni started high school, he wasn’t just smaller than the juniors and seniors — at 12 years old, he was dwarfed by other freshmen.
His size made him a target of bullies, as did his background as a Moroccan-born Muslim.
“I struggled to not let it affect my schoolwork, because in the classroom I was just an equal to the bullies,” he said as he sat with his mother in the spartan living room of their Dorchester apartment on a recent afternoon.
“Equal” isn’t quite the word.
According to faculty at TechBoston Academy, it was clear from the start that Elmeghni had intellectual gifts few could match. Now, at 16, he is the youngest valedictorian in the Dorchester school’s history. He will soon enter Syracuse University with a scholarship and ambitions of becoming a chemical engineer.
A slender young man of average height, Elmeghni says he owes his success partly to his natural abilities, partly to his desire to prove himself, and partly to the encouragement of his mother, Fatima Raji, who brought him and his two older sisters to the United States for opportunities unavailable in Morocco.
“I worked very, very hard for them,” said Raji, 56, as she recalled giving up a middle-class lifestyle and her job as a French teacher in an elementary school. She now works for a food-service company preparing pizzas, salads, and sandwiches at Fenway Park.
But she has no regrets. “I’m very proud of this baby,” she said, beaming.
Seated beneath a framed verse from the Koran, mother and son described their journey.
Raji and her former husband brought their three younger children to Massachusetts in 2006, while their oldest son attended Quincy College. They first settled in Salem, where 9-year-old Elmeghni tested so well that he was placed in the seventh grade, though he spoke almost no English.
For the first few weeks he couldn’t communicate with his teachers or classmates. But television helped show him how Americans spoke, and he learned quickly.
The family moved to East Boston, where Elmeghni spent eighth grade at the Mario Umana Academy. Recognizing his gifts in math and science, Elmeghni’s principal recommended he go to high school at TechBoston Academy, where the curriculum emphasizes those subjects.
The East Boston apartment turned out to be infested with bedbugs, forcing the family to throw out most of their belongings. So they moved again, to Fields Corner to be closer to TechBoston, and later to their current home, a 10-minute walk from the school.
While some at TechBoston used Elmeghni’s size and culture to try to make themselves look tougher, he met others who were serious about getting an education. Over time, this handful of young men formed a tight social circle, both encouraging one another to succeed and competing for top honors.
The boys’ dedication, and especially Elmeghni’s attention to detail and planning, impressed guidance counselor Archana Ailawadhi. In the days leading up to the annual citywide valedictorian lunch, she said, Elmeghni would text her at home every night with some inquiry about the event.
But in the past, Ailawadhi and others said, Elmeghni’s youth was sometimes evident in his immature behavior. He could be a showoff, a wiseguy, but he responded well to authority figures.
“When he would do something silly, I would talk to him: ‘Well, do you understand why it was silly, why that’s not something an 11th-grader would do?’ ” said Chimdi Uchendu, who teaches algebra and calculus at TechBoston. “And he takes it very well. He’s one of our students that you can actually talk to.”
Playing sports helped Elmeghni grow. Baseball coach William “Rusty” Young said he has watched Elmeghni develop from an awkward boy who had never played the game into a competent player at any position.
More than that, Young said, Elmeghni has become a young man with integrity and a capacity for leadership.
This spring, with all the distractions of their final high school year, many of the team’s seniors stopped showing up for baseball. But Elmeghni rarely missed a practice, and he helped guide the team’s decision to forgive a senior who apologized for missing games while asking five others to turn in their uniforms.
“Leadership isn’t telling people what to do,” Young said. “It’s leading by example, inspiring the people around you to want to be their best. He was able to do that in the latter part of this year.’’
Elmeghni also feels he’s become more mature. Earning the respect of his peers has made a big difference, he said.
“Nobody really underestimated me anymore because they knew what I was capable of inside and outside of school,” he said. “And that just gave me a lot of confidence both on the field or the track and in the classroom.”
A lesson he learned from running track has guided him, he said, and will do so as he moves on to college and beyond.
“I ran the mile and 2-mile, and those were long races, and they get the best of you,” said Elmeghni, who placed third in Boston in the mile and second in the 4 x 400-meter relay.
“You just have to learn that it’s a long race. You have to pace yourself,” he said. “I guess that also applies to life. You just have to believe that you can do it, and you have to save your best push for last.”
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.