Eric Herman sits down Tuesday at a booth in Linda Jean's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs for a lunch of chicken fingers and French fries, and admits a half-hour later that his stomach is still a bit topsy-turvy.

While most seniors at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School are basking in one of the most glorious sensations known to mankind - finishing their last day of high school - Mr. Herman has one final assignment hanging over his head.

As the class valedictorian, he must draft and deliver a speech.

"I was up until one-thirty in the morning revising it," he says. "I write best at night."

Mr. Herman is appropriately reticent about stealing his own thunder and revealing too many details about his address. But he concedes this much: His topic draws on the inherent humor in his decision to play soccer despite his father's job as head coach of the high school varsity football team.


That may sound like a rebellious move, but after an hour talking with Mr. Herman you begin to glimpse a remarkable equanimity and self-possession for an 18-year-old.

In other words, Mr. Herman is his own man.

Last summer when he worked as an attendant at the public tennis courts in Niantic Park in Oak Bluffs, he pedaled his bike down Wing Road carrying something completely unexpected: his saxophone.

In the hours when there were no players out there lobbing balls and charging the nets, Mr. Herman pulled his sax from the case and started to blow.

"I got a lot of comments," he says quietly. "A guy brought his standup bass over and taught me how to play over his lines and improvise."

Another time, a man came up to him and said his teenage daughter also played saxophone. "She came over, too," says Mr. Herman, who smiles between sips from a tall glass of Coke.

The young musician, though, is also a budding mathematician. In late August he departs for freshmen orientation at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he will study math, seek out a jazz band and try out for the soccer team.

If Mr. Herman had a resume or if you had access to his college application papers, he would probably look like one of those typical, overachieving high school kids. He captained the soccer squad this year and loaded up on three advanced placement courses: music theory, calculus BC and physics.

Back in second grade, he was already a wunderkind on the chess tournament circuit, handily beating high school players with beards and driver's licenses.

But despite such accomplishments, it's hard to detect even a shred of conceit in Mr. Herman. Maybe that's because he is equally candid about his failures and shortcomings.

He had wanted to pursue a double major in college, combining his passion for numbers with his love for musical notes. So when he went to Pittsburgh for a visit, he brought along his saxophone case for an audition.

"No one told me there were only three sax majors in the entire school," he says. He didn't make the cut.

As a member of the high school track team, Mr. Herman ran the one-mile event. "It wasn't so much that I was a big contributor to the team, but it kept me in shape," he says.

"Sheer physical strength wouldn't be his strong point, but Eric goes about his business with a real quiet confidence," says varsity soccer coach Robert Hammond. "Steady perseverance was the way he played the game. That's the glue that binds the team."

Mr. Herman chose the rigorous academic path in high school, but he is no intellectual snob. Most of his friends didn't sit in those advanced classes and are now headed off to far less selective colleges and universities. These are the pals that he went ice fishing with on Seth's Pond and the ones he played poker with and went to movies with on weekend nights through his high school years.

His cousin and boyhood friend, Owen Mercer, will join the U.S. Marine Corps in the fall. Mr. Herman respects the decision but doesn't conceal his concern for a close friend: "He chose the wrong time, I think, with Iraq and everything, but he had his heart set on it."

There's something wistful about Mr. Herman as he talks, recalling friendships and teachers.

It was Eve Heyman at the Oak Bluffs School who recruited Eric for the math team in seventh grade.

"She's got a lot of energy," says Mr. Herman. And the team sparked his interest. Like chess, it offered an arena where brains were the muscle.

"It gets you competitive about math," he says.

At the high school, he found inspiration and support from Dan Sharkovitz, Ken DeBettencourt and Janice Wightman.

"Kenny DeBettencourt, the way he taught was perfect for me," he says, quickly remembering the contests that his math teacher concocted - cardboard boat races and the linguine bridges.

Mrs. Wightman's music classes? "She never yells and she always listens to kids' stories," he says. "I learned a lot in that class."

And Mr. Sharkovitz this week eased the valedictorian's mind when he gave his English teacher's stamp of approval to the latest draft of the speech.

Mr. Herman's ability to credit the work of his teachers may come from first-hand awareness. Both his parents are teachers. His mother teaches fourth grade at the Tisbury School. His father teaches physical education at the high school.

During his elementary school years, his mother stayed home to raise him and his younger brother and sister.

Up at the high school, he only had his father for one class.

"They made sure I didn't have him for sex-ed," he adds, smiling. "That was my only request."