High school graduation is a milestone. Some acquire their diploma easily. Others earn theirs against all odds. These graduating seniors didn’t let life’s blows keep them down. This month, they will cross the commencement stage knowing their tribulations made them stronger.
Kimberly Aguirre and Ariel Tovar
• Kimberly Aguierre is not going to Mountain View College.
It’s a perfectly good school, but she’s determined to attend a university, and it’s not going to be in Dallas.
The 17-year-old senior at Adamson High School was born in Oak Cliff to a 15-year-old mother and raised here by her grandparents. When she enrolls at the University of Houston next fall, she will be the first person in her family to attend college outside of Oak Cliff.
Her grandparents, whom she calls mom and dad, were born in Mexico. Their traditional values call for sons and daughters to live at home until they’re married. Her aunts and uncles, whom she considers brothers and sisters, all followed that tradition.
But Aguirre is different.
“I love Oak Cliff, and hopefully, after I graduate, I can come back here and be a teacher,” she says. “But I don’t want to be in a bubble and not see the world.”
That attitude is a change from a year ago, when Aguirre almost dropped out of high school.
She had attended private schools all her life. But when the recession hit, her grandfather was laid off from his job as a janitor, and she had to switch to public school. It was a rough time, and Aguirre wanted to drop out so she could work full time and help the family.
“My mom looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘No. You’re not dropping out,’ ” she recalls.
She started spending time in Adamson’s Education is Freedom office, where the nonprofit’s employees help students prepare for college.
She found a role model and mentor in “Miss Kim”, Education is Freedom’s Kimberly D’Mello.
“If it wasn’t for her and this whole organization, I would’ve never gone,” she says. “I might go to Mountain View and get a part-time job or something. But I wouldn’t be going away to college.”
It took many months of stubbornness, but Aguirre’s parents finally accepted her decision to go away to college.
“Kim was never given any support from her family with respect to forwarding her education, but she realized that in order to get out of the struggle, she needs to get a college degree,” D’Mello says.
“To her family, college was for rich people. It took her years to get her grandmother to let her apply to a university.”
Recently, Aguirre’s parents went with her on a university visit, and they started to see her side of it, she says.
“I’m not going to be left behind and not do anything with my life. I’m not going to have a baby,” she says. “I want something bigger. I don’t want conformity. I want something big.”
Aguirre plans to earn a degree in education from University of Houston and become an ESL teacher.
• Ariel Tovar has a tattoo on her chest that reads, “Ignorance is Bliss”.
“If I didn’t see half the things my mom did to me, then maybe I’d be a little bit different than I am,” she says. “Maybe I would be a happier person and maybe not as insecure.”
Tovar, an 18-year-old senior at Adamson High School, was born to a teenage mom. From the time she was a baby, she bounced from one caregiver to another. She stayed with her grandma for about two years. Once, her mom asked an aunt to watch little Ariel while she went to the store; mom didn’t return for two months.
Later, when her mom was fighting with a live-in boyfriend, the boyfriend gave her mother an ultimatum: the kid or me.
“She didn’t say anything,” Tovar says. “She just let me go that easily over some guy.”
The next day, her mom drove her to San Antonio to live with her grandma.
While she was there, from the ages of 8 to 12, she says a male relative regularly molested her.
She received what she describes as a strict Christian upbringing from her grandma. And she has two aunts who she says love her and often help her out in life. One is her mom’s sister, who lives in the Dallas area, and the other is her uncle’s ex-wife, who lives in San Antonio.
Tovar returned to live with her mother eventually, but after a fight last year, she was kicked out of the house.
“I had no car, no money, no job, nothing,” she says.
So she couch surfed, spending the night with friends, with her aunt, living in a different place every night or two. That went on for three months, but Tovar made sure she never missed a day of school.
She always told herself she didn’t want to be like her mom.
“She dropped out of high school, and she had a difficult childhood, too,” she says. “If I’m like her, then I’m going to be dependent on other people for everything, for comfort, for happiness, for money, everything.”
Kimberly D’Mello of Education is Freedom says Tovar is naturally ambitious.
“She doesn’t want to work for minimum wage all her life,” she says. “College has always been a goal. She knows that’s her ticket to the life she wants to live.”
Tovar’s mom recently let her move back in with her. But she doesn’t spend much time there. She leaves school at 12:30 p.m. every day and goes to work at a barbecue restaurant, where she works 30-40 hours a week.
She is protective of her 15-year-old brother, and she sometimes gives him money or buys him video games. She drives him to school every day in the ’99 Chevy Cavalier a friend’s dad is letting her buy in payments of $300 a month. She pays for her car insurance, buys her own clothes and generally takes care of herself.
Tovar’s favorite class is Advanced Placement biology, and she wants to study biochemistry at Texas Woman’s University and then go to medical school to become an obstetrician.
“I’ve pushed myself this far, so I’m pretty sure I can do it,” she says.
She says she forgives her mom, who lost her oldest child (Tovar’s older brother) to Child Protective Services, and her youngest, a 7-year-old daughter, to a custody battle.
“My little brother and me are the only ones who she’s always going to have,” Tovar says. “She’s had so many boyfriends come and go, and we’ve always been by her side.”
Even though her childhood was difficult, Tovar has no regrets. If things had been different, she could be “like other girls, partying every weekend and getting drunk and sneaking out of their moms’ houses.”
She might not have pushed herself so hard. She might not have that confidence, knowing she’s smart and that no one can take it away from her.
That’s why she wants another tattoo, this one on her back: “Knowledge is Key”.
Two life-changing events happened to 19-year-old Fernando Reyes before he entered kindergarten.
Just after he was born, his dad committed suicide. And when he was 5 years old, he was in a car accident that injured his digestive system.
Possibly one of the best-liked students at Sunset High School, Reyes could pass for 14 or 15. But he has an old soul.
“I feel old already,” he says. “My friends will come and ask for advice about their girlfriend or whatever, and I’m like ‘Why are you asking me?’ ” he says.
They tell him it’s because he has been through a lot in life.
He has certainly known a lot of pain.
For most of his life, he blamed himself for his dad’s death, and he thinks some of his relatives blame him, too.
The car accident that damaged his intestines left him with digestive difficulties that many hospital stays, many doctors and many medications couldn’t solve.
When he was about 12 years old, he decided to stop taking medication for his digestive system. He was tired of always trying something new and dealing with a whole new set of side effects for little or no relief.
Reyes closes his eyes, shakes his head from side to side and sucks air through his teeth, remembering his stomach pains.
There were good days. But most mornings, he forced himself to stand up, get out of bed and go to school.
And when he got there, he often stayed quiet. He didn’t want anyone to touch him or talk to him.
“If I had a headache or something, it wouldn’t bother me,” he says. “But when my stomach would hurt, I would be in agony. I would be so frustrated, and I would have mood swings.”
But he was there, and he was learning.
One morning last year, around Halloween, Reyes woke up in tears. His stomach had been bothering him for weeks, and he couldn’t stand it any longer. He asked his aunt to drive him to the emergency room at Methodist hospital.
“I told her, ‘Watch. You’ll take me to the hospital, and I won’t get out for a month,’” he recalls.
Doctors removed a portion of his intestines. It was a difficult and painful surgery with a long recovery time. He stayed in the hospital until just before Christmas. And he was in homebound classes until the end of January.
Now, he can’t lift anything over 20 pounds. But he is healed from the surgery.
Reyes is on the golf team, and he’s in theater tech, doing all the lighting and sound for the school’s stage performances.
“He came to school when he was sick, and he refused to graduate a year later,” assistant principal Belinda Rosas-Delgado says. “He would come to school even when he was not supposed to.”
The 20-pound weight limit prevents him from doing some of the things he used to do. But he still volunteers to help teachers with their rooms — painting, hanging pictures and reconfiguring desks.
And in the summer, he volunteers at the Hampton-Illinois Branch Library.
After his graduation in May, Reyes and his mom plan to go to his dad’s grave and take pictures with his cap and gown, holding the diploma.
“Now I’m like, ‘You know what? That’s not my fault. That’s his fault,’ ” he says.
Reyes is the second person in his family to graduate from high school, after his mom.
He plans to attend community college and transfer to a university to study theater tech.