“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.
Edgar Gonzaga is a polite, reserved young man, the only boy among five siblings.
“Yup, just me and four girls,” he says with a bashful chuckle. “I have two older sisters and two younger sisters.”
Those sisters and his parents, he says, are motivating him to become the first in his family to attend college.
“Right now, my family is what’s pushing me — they are very much my rock.
“We’re all in an apartment right now, but I’d like to get my family a house. My parents have always worked really hard to support our family, so I’d like to be able to give back.
“Even though my parents never went to college, they always told me how important education was, and they’ve always pushed me to do my best at school.”
It was thanks to them that Gonzaga saw education as a means to better himself early in life, always putting his schoolwork first. But in junior high, Gonzaga says he put his goal in jeopardy when he “started to go down the wrong path and lose focus on school.” It was around that time he was recruited by Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a school program that seeks students with college potential who need guidance to prepare.
“A lot of times, the kids in this program might be the first in their family to go to college, so it’s a totally new concept for them,” says Pamela Jones, the teacher who runs the AVID program at JJ Pearce High School. She has worked with Gonzaga the past four years and watched him flourish.
“He could have easily gone down that wrong path and just given up on school entirely, but he stuck with it,” she says, “and I’m proud of him for that.”
“[Jones] has stayed on me the entire time I’ve been here at Pearce,” Gonzaga says. “She’s been tough on me at times, but I know I needed it, and she has my best interest at heart.”
Today, Gonzaga is poised for college and is hoping for a soccer scholarship so he can study mechanical engineering.
“It’s been hard because I’ve always kind of felt like the odds were stacked against me, so I’ve had to work twice as hard. But I feel like in some ways, that’s made me appreciate it more.
“I’ve had a lot of people along the way tell me I couldn’t make it and that I was crazy for thinking I’d be the first to actually make it to college. But I just ignore that and surround myself with the positive.”
Jones says it’s precisely that attitude that’s going to carry Gonzaga far.
“He’s proof of what a lot of potential and a little guidance can do. He’s done it all on his own, and he’s never made excuses. For me, Edgar is the face of the AVID program.
“Even after he’s graduated, I will always think of him when I think of what the AVID program is capable of doing for kids. He’s an awesome kid; he just doesn’t know it yet.”
On average, it takes someone four to seven years to become academically proficient in English, according to Stanford University’s Linguistic Minority Research Institute. JJ Pearce senior Moises Hermosillo not only achieved proficiency in about a year, but he also has reached dizzying academic heights.
Hermosillo moved to Dallas when he was 12 and didn’t speak a word of English.
“I was in an ESL class with one kid from Burma and another from Turkey, so if we wanted to communicate with each other, we all had to learn English,” he says with a chuckle. “I guess that motivated us all.”
Today, that sixth-grader who spoke zero English is now ranked in the top 5 percent of his graduating class at Pearce. Hermosillo, who has already completed four college classes, has been accepted to UT Austin, where he plans to study programming. Like Gonzaga, Hermosillo is part of the AVID program — and in fact, he is the highest-ranking student to go through the program since RISD launched it nearly a decade ago.
Achieving that kind of success might give some kids a big head, but not Hermosillo. When asked how he feels about setting an RISD academic record, he timidly smiles.
“This is actually the first I’m hearing this — I think my mom will be proud. I’ve had a couple of family members who have ended up horribly addicted to drugs or in prison, so my mom always told me to learn from their mistakes. She always told me education was the key to a better life, so I think this will make her really proud.”
Physics teacher Barbara Flickinger says that kind of modesty is typical of Hermosillo.
“Intrinsically, it’s his nature to be humble,” she says. “He’s profoundly gifted — and he’s as motivated as he is gifted.
“His school, family and community have all served him well. He’s a testament to how awesome kids can be when all those things come together to raise kids up to the highest point they can reach.
“All kids can’t be in the top five percent of their graduating class like [Hermosillo] is, but they can all have their own success story, and that’s what really matters.”
Spend a few minutes with Nina Stuer, and you’ll learn she’s wise beyond her years.
“My parents taught me that things are better earned than given,” she says. “Nothing in life is worth having if it’s not worth working for.”
Stuer, who is senior class president at Richardson High School and an anchor on the school’s Eagle Eye morning news, spends her spare time volunteering with Rotary International and teaching kids Kung Fu, in which she holds a brown belt. She recently returned from studying in China, and she hopes to earn a degree in international business from UT Austin.
To say Stuer is accomplished is an understatement, but her precociousness is largely due to the fact that she had to grow up a lot faster than most teenagers.
When Stuer was 15, she wrapped up her sophomore year, and the summer began much like any ordinary vacation break — but it would end up changing her life forever.
“My older sister, Jade, and I were at home when a family friend came to our house. I could see he had tears in his eyes, and he’s not the kind of guy who cries easily, so I knew something was wrong,” Stuer says. “He told me to sit down. Then I really knew something was wrong.”
He told the girls that there had been a serious car accident, and both of their parents were dead.
“I just remember Jade was screaming, and I could not breathe,” Stuer says.
The accident happened just outside of Shreveport. Her father, a musician, had traveled to Louisiana to conduct music workshops with children who had lost their neighborhood libraries to Hurricane Katrina. Her mother, a photographer, always accompanied him on such trips, documenting everything from behind her camera lens.
“My parents shared a soul; I really believe that,” she says with a soft smile. “Dad was a percussionist who could play anything you hit with a mallet or your hand. Mom was a true artist who loved life to the utmost. They were all about spreading love worldwide through music.”
It’s comforting, Stuer says, that they died together doing what they loved. And there are other comforts she takes solace in: Her older brother, Jules, was also in that car accident; miraculously, he walked away unharmed.
“They were all going down the freeway when a tire blew out, and the car flipped. The side where my parents were sitting was almost completely flattened, but the side where my brother was sitting was almost perfect, like he had a bubble of protection around him.
“This accident happened on a Friday afternoon, and there was a priest traveling down the same road. He saw the accident happen, and he pulled over. He was able to anoint both of my parents at the scene before they died.
“You know, I was never a believer in God; that wasn’t my thing. But the way this accident happened, I can’t help but believe there is a God, and that it happened exactly the way it was supposed to.
“The fact that my brother survived unharmed, the fact that there was a priest there on a Friday afternoon wearing his holy robe, it all leads me to believe that something bigger was at work that day. I don’t believe in coincidence anymore.”
Having her two older siblings has been a godsend, Stuer says.
“We lost our parents in an instant. That morning, they were there, and that night, they were gone. My brother had to also become my father overnight. Our home was a very sad one that summer. I could feel the pain in the next room. Knowing I couldn’t do anything to fix it was very, very hard.”
But Stuer and her siblings have pulled through, finding strength in each other. Their surviving family lives far away in California and along the Gulf Coast, so the three siblings rely largely on each other.
“If one of the cars we’re sharing breaks down, we have to work together to get it up and running again.
“Yes, things are tough, and it’s hard for us kids to make ends meet on our own. But from day one, our parents taught us to appreciate the things we have, which we do.
“So if I’m eating rice, for example, I’m thankful not just for the food that’s on my plate — but also the people who had to work to harvest it and bag it and stock it in the store.
“I’m incredibly thankful for my siblings. I wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for them.”
Stuer says if anyone takes a lesson from her story, it’s to appreciate the people in life who love you. She plans to share that message during her class president speech on graduation day, which is also the two-year anniversary of her parent’s death.
“I hear kids complain about the car their dad bought them or the lunch their mom packed them. I don’t have a dad, and I don’t have a mom, so I wish more kids would see the bigger picture of their life, and how their parents fit into that.
“During graduation, I’m going to make it a point to ask all my classmates to take a moment and thank someone who helped them make it through school, even if it’s not a parent. None of us would be here without the help of someone.”
And as for her parents, Stuer says she knows they’ll be with her in spirit on graduation day, too.
“I feel like everything my parents taught me, all the survival skills they gave me, has all made me who I am, and therefore they’ll always be a part of me. I think the only reason we fear death is because we don’t really know what it is.
“For all I know, Dad’s up in heaven playing drums with Jimi Hendrix, and Mom’s dancing in the background taking pictures of it all. So when you think of it like that, it’s almost selfish for me to be sad.
“Of course I miss them, but I have to move on and live my life; it’s what they would want me to do.”
to see what makes Nina keep on going.