“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”
So said Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave and died an orator, author and educator.
If his words are true, then these high school seniors already have achieved more success than many of us will ever realize. Despite the obstacles in their way, they have pressed forward.
Walking across the stage at graduation will not be the finish line. For these neighborhood students, it will only be the beginning.
It started with what Natalie Hernandez describes as “a ball” in her lower leg.
“I used to go running with my brother in the park, and it would hurt really bad,” she says. “But I didn’t tell my mom about the ball until it got pretty big.”
They went to a surgeon in summer 2008, and he told them it was a fatty tissue tumor. He said it was common, that it would require a 45-minute procedure.
But when the doctor started operating, the tumor was much bigger than he thought, and it was down to the bone, so he took a biopsy.
“It turned out I have alveolar soft part sarcoma,” says the 17-year-old Adamson High School senior. “It’s a very rare cancer.”
When she was diagnosed, she and her family were devastated.
“I thought I was going to die,” she says.
Hernandez has four doctors, and for all of them, she is the first person they have seen with this type of cancer. It’s so rare a diagnosis that doctors aren’t sure how best to treat it.
First, Hernandez tried an experimental drug. But the tumor grew bigger, and the cancer moved to her lungs. So doctors recommended chemotherapy, but Hernandez didn’t want it.
“I didn’t want to lose my hair,” she says.
But she knew it was for the best. The first round of chemo lasted four months, and it didn’t work.
So last summer, Hernandez started more intense chemo for six months. She was in the hospital all the time, sick all the time. The scent of chewing gum or her own shampoo could make her vomit. Her hair fell out.
She was angry.
“I’ve always been a good student and a good person, and I didn’t know why this was happening to me,” she says. “I was confused about God. I didn’t know why He would do this to me. But now I realize that He did it for a reason. It was to make me a stronger person.”
Every time she took a chemo treatment, she told her mom it was the last one — she wasn’t going back for more. But she kept going anyway.
She took her last chemo treatment in December. Doctors couldn’t give her any more for fear the cancer would build resistance to the chemo and that she could develop skin cancer.
But it seems to have worked.
Hernandez hasn’t missed school since December. She’s taking chemo tablets, and she will find out after her May graduation whether the cancer has cleared her body. After that, doctors will remove “the ball” in her leg.
To see her today, in a remarkably realistic wig, her eyebrows and arm hair growing back, one would never know she had cancer, says Adamson counselor Daniel Cruz.
“She’s such a happy person,” he says.
Hernandez has this message for other people suffering from cancer, including a friend at Townview Magnet Center, who recently was diagnosed with leukemia: “I know it gets really hard. But don’t give up.”
Hernandez plans to attend the University of North Texas in the fall and pursue a journalism degree.
Javier Gutierrez lived a life of luxury. Think maids, chauffeurs and long vacations.
But about four years ago, his father decided to give up a lucrative job in Nicaragua and move the family to Texas because he and his wife wanted to devote their lives to the Catholic Church. Now they are missionaries at Our Lady of Pilar, and the family of eight (plus one on the way) lives in the parsonage.
And now, Javier is the chauffeur.
The 18-year-old plays tennis, golf and soccer at Bishop Dunne High School, and as the oldest, he makes time to get his siblings to practices, games and other extra-curricular activities.
He maintains a 3.4 grade point average, and he has a lot to do.
“He never makes excuses,” says head golf coach and math department chair Thomas M. Perez.
Gutierrez knew a little English before he came to America, but has since mastered his second language. Maybe that’s why he’s never afraid to ask for help in school, where math is his favorite subject, or in athletics.
In golf and in math, he takes instruction well — he listens and lets his coach know if he doesn’t understand something, Perez says.
The hardest part about moving here, Gutierrez says, was leaving his cousins and other relatives.
“It was really hard at first. Most of my family is there, and we all lived in the same neighborhood,” he says. “Now I get to see them twice a year.”
Because his parents are busy with their jobs and they work late nights, Gutierrez often takes responsibility for his siblings. He makes sure they’re fed, bathed and doing their homework. Most nights, he’s too busy for homework, so he gets to school an hour or two early every day to study.
And Gutierrez is constantly aware that he’s far from home.
“I have to make my own bed and wash dishes, pick my brothers up from school and take them to their practices, babysit,” he says. “Sometimes I can’t go out because I have to take care of them.”
He’s not complaining. Gutierrez is proud of his parents, who believe they’re answering God’s call.
He wants to attend Texas Christian University or the University of Texas at Arlington to study engineering and earn an MBA.
When wrestling practice starts at Bishop Dunne High School, there’s no mohawked boy leading the warm-ups.
Instead, the leader is 18-year-old Alex Dean, one of three female wrestlers on the team.
“She’s always very cheery, and you never have to ask her to do anything, she just does it,” wrestling coach Stephen Guerrero says.
Dean is No. 13 in her class, despite being enrolled in challenging subjects such as Advanced Placement biology. She says her parents push her to make good grades and exceed expectations. But one gets the feeling she would do it anyway.
Her parents divorced when she was 12, which she says made her grow up more quickly. Since then, she has split time between her mom’s house and her dad’s house. When they divorced, she felt like she’d lost control of her life, so she threw herself into school.
“I know school isn’t going to fix that issue,” she says. “But school is a way to escape, so I wanted to do well in it.”
She started wrestling her freshman year, and she held nothing back in that arena, either. She has more than 90 wins under her belt and has gone to nationals all four years. Plus, she’s on the volleyball team, and spends about three hours a day on homework.
Dean says academics don’t come easy to her, but that she pushes herself to overcome obstacles.
“I like to have that control over things in my life, and some things you can’t control,” she says. “But I can control how I do in school, and I can achieve the goals I set for myself.”
Dean wants to become a physical therapist and is waiting to hear whether she’s been admitted to Texas A&M University, her first pick. Otherwise, she’ll go with her second pick, Oklahoma State University.
Jasmine Webb is tall and athletic. She smiles a lot and speaks in a loud, clear voice. She’s energetic and positive. She is, in a word, charismatic.
“She’s a tremendous athlete, and she’s a great individual too,” says Bishop Dunne High School track and field coach Dewey Wakefield. “She works very hard, and we try to use her as a role model for other kids.”
Webb is a sprinter who has a track scholarship to Texas Pan-Am University in Edinburg.
She says no one at home asks her about schoolwork or whether she has homework — they know she’ll take care of it. She is No. 21 in her class and has a 3.9 grade-point average.
Ask her what motivates her, and she can’t quite pin it down.
“I’m not sure what I’m motivated by, but I feel like everything I do has to be the best,” she says. “People give up so fast, and they don’t think they have a chance. I want to be the example that there is life after high school. You can go to college.”
Part of her motivation comes from the apathy she sees in other kids her age. Webb now lives in Lancaster with her grandma, mom and three siblings. But her family lived for a while in an apartment complex in Oak Cliff.
“All the kids took school as a joke. And I was like, ‘Y’all are crazy.’ They never valued it,” she says “And that just made me want to work harder and study and do good in school.”
Besides running track, Webb also plays basketball and has a part-time job at Chuck E. Cheese. She likes it, but she knows it’s a dead-end job.
“I don’t want to work at Chuck E. Cheese all my life. I don’t want a promotion to manager,” she says. “I want to succeed and excel in life.”
Webb is running in the Texas Relays, March 31-April 3, and Wakefield believes she could be one of the top runners in the state in her events, the 100 and 200 meters.
But Webb is already looking further ahead. She wants to become a lawyer once she finishes college.