The music cues, and a stream of cloaked teenagers in tasseled caps march forward. After 13 years of elementary, middle and high school, it’s all come to this: graduation day.
Along that journey, some have become stars in the stadium, some have basked in the limelight, and some have advanced to the head of the class.
But others have excelled in a completely different way. They’ve overcome trials and hardships, often beating odds that others wouldn’t have conquered.
These are the stories of neighborhood graduates who, in the dawn of life, have outshined some of life’s darkest moments.
BEFORE BILLY ALLEN landed at Lake Highlands High School, he and his family moved from town to town and never quite settled anywhere. There was, however, one constant in his continuously shifting scenery — sports, especially football.
“I think it keeps me out of trouble,” Allen says.
Allen and his family have struggled for as long as he can remember.
“I’m not one of the wealthiest kids, I guess,” the soft-spoken teenager says.
He was born in Atlanta, Ga., and he spent most of his first eight years living in the Bronx, N.Y. At age 8, he went to live with his dad, whom he hardly knew, in Georgia. His mom eventually ended up in Dallas, and during his junior year of high school, Allen came to live with her.
When he arrived at Lake Highlands, he wanted to play football. Though he had played his entire life, he spent his first year on the junior varsity rather than the varsity team.
“I definitely had to prove myself,” Allen says.
He did so by working diligently, practicing well into the evenings even before he was eligible to play, according to his counselor, Pam Moore.
Football coach and athletic director Scott Smith says Allen is the kind of kid coaches wish for — “it’s pretty neat as a coach to watch a player like Billy grow up from a young man to a man right in front of you,” Smith says.
“His determination on the field earned him First-Team All-District wide receiver (honors), but we’ve also seen him excel and exhibit that same type of determination off the field and in his classes.”
Academics proved tougher in Texas than in Georgia.
“It’s a lot harder in Texas,” Allen says. “I had a 3.7 at my Georgia high school, but the first semester here it dropped to a 3.0,” he says.
Moore says Allen accepted the challenges, enrolling in all advanced placement classes this past year. His athletic and academic pursuits really paid off, she says.
“He had an awesome year.”
Indeed, the graduating senior plans to move again next fall to Durant, Okla., where he will play football and attend Southeastern Oklahoma University on a scholarship. Allen’s hard work and dedication arose from a passion for the sport, he says, rather than hope for a scholarship.
“I wanted to take it to the next level, but I never dreamed I’d get a scholarship,” he says.
Allen says he hasn’t relied much on other people — though he says he has had support from his mom and the Lake Highlands community — but instead, he relies mostly on a higher power for his strength.
“I try to live right,” Allen says. “There are times there was nothing I could do but just pray and keep the faith.”
VERONICA SOLZRANO has a broken heart that is healing, ever so slowly.
This has been the hardest year of my life,” Solrzano says. “Being a teenage girl and a senior in high school is tough as it is, but going through it without my mom is …” her voice trails off.
When she speaks again, the resilient strength is evident.
“Knowing what my mom went through, and hearing her advice in my head all the time, that keeps me strong.”
Solrzano’s mother died October 13, 2008, following a 14-year struggle with kidney cancer.
“She was in and out of the hospital a lot over the years, but there were healthy times, too, when she was feeling good,” Solrzano says. “I remember the day doctors told her that she wouldn’t survive. She just didn’t want my brother and I to hurt — she’s the strongest woman I ever met.”
Knowing she wouldn’t be around much longer, Solrzano’s mother instilled in her only daughter the importance of education, and by example, the importance of being a guiding force and a nurturer for her 15-year-old brother. After her mom’s death, a devastated Solrzano stayed away from school for about a month. But she knew she couldn’t stay down long — that’s not what her mom wanted.
“I needed to be a role model for my little brother,” she says, “and I tried to listen to all the advice my mom had given me about education and getting a better life. She wants me to be the first one in the family to go to college.”
Solrzano has faced other hardships, too. She was born in the United States, but Solrzano and her brother, mother and father moved to Mexico for seven years during her childhood. When she returned to Lake Highlands during the eighth grade, Solrzano barely remembered English at all.
“I had to enroll in ESL [English as a Second Language] classes.”
How long did it take her to catch up on her English?
“I’m still working on it,” she says with a smile, though she speaks eloquently with only a hint of an accent.
After her mother’s death, she bounced back from her month of absences and is an active member of the Lake Highlands High School AVID group, which she describes as a tight-knit family that prepares students for college. She plans to attend community college before transferring to a university.
“My mom’s voice is in my head always — be a strong woman, keep up with school. Sometimes I still cry at night and can’t believe it, but I know — I know what I have to do.”
FATIMA RUIZ’S culture, she says, could have kept her from doing certain things if she had allowed it. But she didn’t.
Born of immigrant parents who barely spoke English, Ruiz had to do many things on her own. The language barrier made it tough for her mom and dad to communicate with teachers and coaches, making it difficult to become involved in certain extra-curricular activities, like cheerleading.
Ruiz really loved cheerleading, but she says, “there weren’t a lot of Hispanic kids involved in that activity.” It didn’t faze her — she became captain of the cheerleading squad her senior year at Lake Highlands High School.
Ruiz doesn’t really even see herself as someone who has struggled. She is more focused on what she is doing and what she wants to do. Those who know her, including cheerleading sponsors Cecilia Galvan and Pam Gayden, say any difficulties only strengthened her.
“Fatima is not defined by any adversity she has had in her life,” Galvan says, “but instead she is defined by the character, class, poise and grace she has developed from her difficulties and struggles.”
Ruiz has not shied from her Hispanic culture, becoming an active member of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, which does service work in the community — from cleaning White Rock Lake Park with For the Love of the Lake to collecting food for families in need through the nonprofit group Cena el Barrio.
“I try to encourage other students and to be a leader to the younger ones,” Ruiz says.
She also tutors children and family members — it’s a job she hopes to kick up a notch by studying education administration in college and eventually becoming a teacher.
“I really like children,” Ruiz says, “and I think working with them is something I do well, actually.”
JANI JONES has seen things in her relatively short life that many of us might see only in the movies.
Growing up in New Orleans, La., she was a regular kid who went to school and occasionally liked to shoot hoops. Her mother worked hard to raise Jones and her siblings, creating a happy existence with food on the table and a roof overhead.
But that all changed in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina washed away life as they knew it.
Jones describes the days following the hurricane as a chaotic “survival of the fittest” during which she saw things she will never forget.
“After the storm, the waters rose … I saw babies in strollers floating, people holding on to each other floating away, people you knew were going to die.”
Her home was under 15 feet of water, and Jones, her little sister and mother had to swim through the murky and tumultuous floodwaters to a rescue boat.
“I didn’t know if I could make it,” Jones says. “My mom was swimming with a few of our things, and I had my sister on my back. The water was full of branches and mud, and it was too hard to swim through.”
They barely made it.
Other people on the rescue boat told them there was help at the nearby Danziger Bridge, where the boat was leaving survivors.
“But those people were just telling stories,” Jones says. “There was no help there.”
Instead there were war-like conditions — thousands of people fighting for the small amounts of food the military dropped off during a six-day span. She recalls at one point using one of her three T-shirts to cover up a baby who was lying naked under the hot sun.
“It was bad, but we couldn’t break down — I had my little sister and my mom there. We had to be strong for each other.”
Even after Texan relatives helped Jones, her mother and sister relocate to Lake Highlands, things were tough.
“I was angry, and I didn’t want to be here. There were rumors going on all around that Katrina victims were taking over — I had to fight my way through school sometimes.”
Jones earned an award for district newcomer in basketball that first year, but ended up off the team due to failing grades. It was during her sophomore year, with the help of mentors such as basketball coach Holly Mulligan and school guidance counselor Veta Parker, that she started to let go of her anger over the past and started looking toward the future.
“I started to see college as a way out of the situation. And I saw basketball as a way to get there.”
Since then, Jones — who hopes to study physical therapy and someday become a sports trainer — has excelled in school and sport. Her senior year, she earned the district’s Offensive Player of the Year award, and she has received scholarship offers from several universities. She credits the LHHS community with helping her overcome, and even embrace, her experiences.
“The school and the staff, a lot of people really got behind me,” Jones says. “I am OK with everything because I really think it made me stronger — I even think Katrina must have happened for a reason.”