June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Amanda Lemon sat proudly in the Xenia (Ohio) High School auditorium on April 21, waiting for her name to be called. Three weeks earlier she had been asked to join her school’s chapter of the National Honor Society; now she and 56 other teenagers were gathered for an induction rehearsal. One by one, Carol Smith, the Honor Society’s local co-adviser, read off the names of the inductees, and students took their seats. But she never summoned Amanda Lemon.

“Everyone was whispering,” says Lemon, 18, a senior with a 3.8 grade-point average at Greene County Career Center, a nearby vocational-technical school that accepts Xenia High students. “People thought I must have done something wrong. I was getting embarrassed and nervous.” Finally, Smith took her aside and told her that the faculty council had reversed its decision to include her. Lemon said, “It’s because I have a baby, isn’t it?” Smith admitted it was, according to Lemon.

In fact, the five-person council had only recently discovered what Lemon had assumed was common knowledge—that she has an 11-month-old daughter, Abby. Eligibility for the Honor Society, a 77-year-old organization with chapters at more than 14,000 high schools nationwide, is determined partly by a student’s grades and partly by community service, leadership and character—and “Mrs. Smith said having a baby is a lack of character,” says Lemon. On April 24 the young mother filed a formal grievance with the school. “If they’ve discriminated against me,” she says, “they’ll do it to others.”

Officially, the Xenia chapter regards teenage sexual activity—not motherhood—as evidence of a failure of character. Carol Smith would not comment to PEOPLE, but school superintendent James Smith (who is not related to her) stands by the policy. “In Xenia, sexual activity has not been an acceptable standard for induction,” he says. Smith, who says he admires Lemon for working hard and raising a child—”She’s taken a situation that was a difficult one and made the best of it”—admits that other sexually active Honor Society members probably escape notice. Still, he adds, “pregnancy or parenthood are grounds for indisputable sexual activity. That’s criteria for exclusion.”

Opinion in Xenia, a town of about 25,000, is divided. “We want to influence young girls to finish their education and not have children out of wedlock,” says Board of Education president Wanda Kress. But Cheryl Goecke, 18, a local Honor Society member, argues that “in her situation, [Lemon] is the best role model I’ve ever seen. She knows where her priorities should be.”

For her part, Lemon believes that raising a child while keeping good grades is proof of her character. “When I found out I was pregnant,” she says, “I wanted to do even better, to make a good life for me and Abby.” To do so, she has sacrificed her social life. “I drink a lot of coffee to stay awake,” she says, “and use every second to get homework done. I don’t go out and party. I don’t go out with my friends a lot. You grow up real quick.”

Luckily, Lemon has help: Her mother, Barbara, a payroll clerk, works evenings and cares for Abby during the day. “Amanda has never been resentful” about early motherhood, says Barbara, whose ex-husband, Jeff, an aircraft company employee, lives in Florida. “She just fell into the responsibility.” Abby’s father, Chàd Lee, 18, also a senior at the Career Center, babysits several times a week and shares financial responsibility for the child. The couple ended their three-year relationship a few months ago but remain close. Lemon “worked really hard,” says Lee, “and takes very good care of Abby.”

Lemon—who plans to attend nearby Sinclair Community College in the fall—may never be admitted to the Honor Society, since, according to David Cordts, an associate director at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, membership “is an honor bestowed by the local school” and “sexual activity can be considered a factor.” At this point, Lemon is no longer certain she even wants to be in the Society, but she intends to keep up the fight as a matter of principle. “The point I’m trying to get across is you can still excel, no matter what life hands you,” she says. “You don’t have to give up.”

Dan Jewel

Barbara Sandler in Xenia

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