Damilola Adetunla’s career path was decided by an event that occurred before he was born.
Though he knows the story only secondhand, it has fueled a drive for academic excellence that put Adetunla at the top of his class in his native Lagos, Nigeria, and continued to motivate him at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, where he is this year’s valedictorian.
When Adetunla was a child at his grandmother’s knee, she told him about his cousin’s birth on New Year’s Eve 1999. With his aunt weakened by a long labor, she said, the hospital made a terrible error.
“The doctor said she was dead, and they put her in the body bag,” she said, Adetunla, now 18, recalled in a recent interview. “They were ready to pack her up, but for some reason there was a delay. . . . A nurse was just walking by -- I think she saw the body bag move, and she called attention to someone.”
Adetunla’s aunt was revived, he said, but the shock never fully left his late grandmother, Bolatito, a Yoruba name meaning “how joy sanctifies me.”
“You could see the pain in her eyes,” said Adetunla. “Although her daughter lives, it felt like something died in her that day, after they told her her daughter died.”
Looking at his distraught grandmother, young Adetunla made a vow.
“I was like . . . ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a doctor, and I’ll make sure I fix all that,’ ” he said. “Because that’s not a pain anyone should have to go through.”
Adetunla lost his grandmother three years ago, at 92, but he remains determined to bring better medical care to Nigeria, where he said ambulances are unreliable and hospitals sometimes demand payment before providing treatment.
“It makes me feel bad,” he said. “It makes me feel like my country has a long way to go. It makes me feel like, as [a member of the] younger generation, there is something I can do to help.”
In the fall, Adetunla plans to attend Northeastern University, where he has earned a full scholarship, to major in biology and minor in neuroscience, he said. Then, it’s on to medical school and a specialization in neurosurgery. He plans to open his own practice, eventually move back to Nigeria, “and just work in creating policy and educating people.”
Adetunla and his fraternal twin, Damilare, came to live with their aunt and uncle in Hyde Park in 2015, he said, so they could get a better education and have better job prospects after college. Driven in part by their family’s high standards, both brothers excelled at the Burke.
Sarah Taylor, a history teacher who has known the twins since they arrived at the school, said Adetunla’s academic abilities were quickly evident, even if his leadership skills and quick wit took a little longer to manifest.
“He walked in with his twin brother, Dare, looking very, very nervous and very, very shy, but immediately was a star student,” Taylor said in a phone interview. “Even though . . . it was a completely new environment, Dami immediately stood out as a student who worked so hard, was so interested and invested in his education, from moment one, as a 14-year-old.”
“Which — as someone who has spent a long time working with 14-year-olds — is not the norm,” she added. “Sometimes 14-year-olds need a little bit of time to get excited about school, [but] Dami was ready right away.”
Because he had grown up speaking English, Adetunla didn’t have to learn a new language, and he was never bullied at the Burke, he said. But, still, he didn’t always fit in.
“When I first came, you could notice a thick accent, I guess,” he said with a chuckle. “So it was difficult making friends, because I used to be very shy.”
Going to school with classmates from Cape Verde, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere was similar to going to school in Lagos, where his classmates came from many of Nigeria’s roughly 150 tribes, said Adetunla, whose family is Yoruba.
“I was used to integrating into different cultures,” he said.
Burke Headmaster Lindsa McIntyre recalled the twins being inseparable when they arrived at the school.
“They sat together, they walked together, they came together, they left together, but before long, it was so wonderful to watch each of them spread out and grow in their own direction,” McIntyre said. After he got to know his classmates, she said, he became a mentor to many.
“He always was excelling, but you would have never known it, because he would pair himself up with someone who was struggling, and help them in the process of his own achievement,” said McIntyre, who on Thursday was named High School Principal of the Year by the Massachusetts School Administrators’ Association.
When the twins came to the school as freshmen, Damilare had the highest grade point average in their class. But by senior year, Damilola had secured his honors as valedictorian.
But he insists, there’s no sibling rivalry.
“He knew I worked hard to get it. . . . He’s proud of my achievement too.”