SM North’s Zane Irwin credits mother’s legacy with helping him carve out path for himself

Zane Irwin is heading to Swarthmore College this fall.

This week, we’re featuring a graduate from each of the Shawnee Mission School District’s high schools. We start today with SM North.

Looking at what SM North senior Zane Irwin has accomplished over his years in high school, it’s difficult not to be impressed.

A slew of rigorous academics. Participation in the gifted program. Being named a finalist for the school’s prestigious Northman award. Talent in the performing arts that earned him a place as the senior soloist in Wednesday’s graduation ceremony.

As he finished his final classes last week, Irwin said he had a sense of pride about his time at SM North. But it’s a sense of pride that comes from somewhere beyond himself. While Irwin will have a host of family and friends cheering for him when he crosses the stage to pick up his diploma, there will be a very notable absence: Irwin’s mother died his freshman year.

“I do have these moments when I feel a sense of pride, but it’s a sense of pride that’s coming from somewhere else, too, and I know she’s there,” he said. “[Her death] has definitely had a profound impact on who I am as a person today. It couldn’t not.”

In the weeks and months and years that followed, the loss affected Irwin in a range of ways — “peaks and valleys of impact on my emotional status throughout my time in high school.” Being heavily-involved in school activities, he said, has helped him cope.

“In a practical sense, being so involved in school has helped me focus some of that energy on good and productive things,” he said. “But it’s something that’s always on the back of your mind. It’s something you’ll never really shake, and never really should shake.”

This fall, he’ll head to Swarthmore College, one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country, to continue his studies. It’s a dream fit for Irwin, who loves the liberal arts approach and the variety of experience it offers. He says it’s a path he’s carved for himself — but one he wouldn’t have been able to envision without the lessons he learned from his mom.

“I don’t think that your responsibility as the son of someone who has died is necessarily to continue their legacy, as much as make yourself proud in how you’ve used how they affected you,” he said, “to make something amazing that’s your own because of the impact they had on you.”