“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.
James Duke is nervous.
The problem? Two universities have offered him an athletic scholarship, and he has to choose one of them.
Not a terrible problem to have, especially when you consider the young football player’s roots — if not for sports and the generosity of others, he wouldn’t have this decision to make, he says.
By the time he was in fifth-grade, Duke says, he was headed down a destructive path. He had no male role model, no stability and no good reason to stay out of trouble, he says.
“I was young. We were constantly moving from school to school. My dad was in jail the first 13 years of my life. I was always getting in trouble, stealing and always in the principal’s office,” he says.
Around that time, Duke wound up living at Family Gateway. It was during his stay at the homeless shelter that he found a reason turn his life around.
On Wednesdays, while living in the shelter and later in transitional apartments funded by Gateway, the 12-year-old participated in Rainbow Days programs for at-risk children.
“We did arts and crafts — I made stuff for my mom — and we got to play basketball. I think that’s where my sports career sort of took off.”
He joined a basketball team, and though he shortly had to move again, a seed had been planted.
“Sports changed my life,” he says.
Duke’s mom, Tonya Smith, worked hard to get an apartment in Lake Highlands because she wanted her son to attend Lake Highlands High School, he says. He made friends and joined the football team during his year at the Freshman Center, but soon financial problems claimed the family’s home.
That’s when another Lake Highlands family stepped in.
While coaching his son’s eighth-grade baseball team, Mark Dann met Duke.
“My son [Jason Dann] and James both went to Merriman Park [Elementary]. James just walked on the field one day and asked to play,” Dann recalls.
The boys formed a friendship and played freshman football together. When it became apparent Duke had to leave the district because of his impending move, Mark and his wife, Ginger, offered to let him live with them.
“His mom agreed — he lived with us during the week and visited her on weekends,” Dann says. “We had a sort of guardianship agreement that would allow him to continue school at Lake Highlands.
“We felt James had a lot of potential — he hung around with the right crowd, he worked hard, and he was just a good kid. We didn’t want him to lose that. And we didn’t want to lose him on the football team, either.”
Before his junior year, Duke’s mom found another place to live in Lake Highlands. The Danns bought some furniture for the apartment, and they continue to pay for Duke’s cell phone and gym membership, Duke says.
He moved back home, but that has its share of tribulation. It’s not easy to study in the crowded apartment, Duke says. Duke, his mom, his 19-year-old brother, and his sister and her 1- and 2-year-old children all live there.
“It’s kind of tough, but you learn to block it out,” Duke says.
Despite the noise, Duke is glad to have his family around. His mom “just about cried”, he says, when she learned about the scholarship.
In the end, he chose a full scholarship to Harding University in Arkansas.
Dewayne Chandler has a slight strut in his step and a bright smile on his face as he walks down the Lake Highlands High School hallway — he’s what one might call a “people person”. Not a student, teacher or administrator passes without a mutual greeting.
You’d never take him for a guy whose dreams, just a couple years ago, had been ripped from him — but that’s what he says it felt like when he learned a medical condition would prevent him from playing football.
When he was younger, Chandler’s family moved around quite a bit. Football was more than just a sport; it provided a constant in his life that included a close-knit group of teammates.
“Moving from school to school made it tough to make friends. Football was always a way to do that,” he says.
He started playing the sport at age 5 and later participated at a handful of schools before landing at Lake Highlands. When Chandler’s mom was ready to move again, he talked her out of it.
“I begged and begged her not to go,” he says. “She gave in.”
Playing guard and defensive tackle for LHHS meant the world to Chandler. During a junior-year game, he took a hard hit. The concussion sent him to the hospital, where doctors discovered another problem. They told him that he had a congenital spine defect that made playing football perilous — one wrong hit could mean permanent damage, they told him. Contact sports were unequivocally out.
“My teammates cried. I cried. A lot,” Chandler says.
He considered quitting school and getting a job. But instead, he progressively pulled himself out of the slump.
“The depression lasted a little while, but I had to move on,” he says.
He became a football team manager, a move that required thick skin.
“It was tough to be there and watch them play, knowing I couldn’t. But they were my family,” Chandler says. “I couldn’t just leave them.”
The football players have so much respect for Chandler that, though he wasn’t even playing, they voted him team captain.
“Dewayne is one of those young men who bought in, who loved the game and even when he couldn’t play, wanted to be around it. It’s because of who he is that the players made him captain,” LHHS head football coach Scott Smith says. “He has been awesome and I have no doubt that he will be hugely successful at whatever it is he decides to do.”
Supportive family members, as well as friends from both school and his church, La Victory in Oak Cliff, have helped Chandler remain optimistic and discover new passions.
“A friend from the football team encouraged me to join the bowling team, and I think we are pretty good,” he says with a shy smile. “My cousin, Jeremy Hamilton, told me to keep my head up, believe in myself and to find something that makes me happy and do it. So, I did that.”
In the La Victory choir, he found something that makes him happy.
“When you sing,” Chandler says, “everything’s gone. It gives you an escape.”
Less than two years later, rather than feeling devastated by the turn of events, Chandler feels empowered.
“Today I look at the spinal condition as a blessing that has opened doors and maybe allowed me to help other kids who might be going through something difficult.”
As a member of Richardson ISD’s Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee (SuperSAC), a peer helper and recent recipient of the Exchange Club of Lake Highlands Character Counts Award, Chandler keeps opening doors. If he has his way, he’ll be able to help others like himself.
“I want to be a radiologist — I thought of that when I was in the hospital,” Chandler says. “I want to look at other people’s bones.”
Waking up late at night to warm a bottle, changing diapers or getting a sitter so you can attend your own graduation — not the typical teen situation. But for Sabrina Aguirre, it’s “just life”.
The small-framed, soft-spoken Lake Highlands High School senior was forced to make a grown-up decision when she became pregnant at age 15. She broke the news to her shocked parents, who sat down with her to discuss options.
“There are a lot of choices to make,” she says.
She decided to keep the baby and continued attending school despite frequent morning sickness.
“I was lucky,” she says, “because I had a lot of support.”
Richardson ISD has a program that provides childcare for teenage parents as long as they remain in school. Her parents provide a home and support for their daughter and granddaughter, Janelle, now 2 years old.
“I understand a lot of teenage moms don’t have the opportunity that I had,” Aguirre says.
She is determined to take advantage of those unique opportunities.
“I don’t want to be another statistic,” she says.
Aguirre credits the school’s AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) college-preparation program with much of her academic success. After high school, she plans to attend college and then medical school. She says her parents will care for Janelle while she is in school.
“I will be sad leaving her,” Aguirre says, “but this will be for all of us.”
Aguirre’s father, Mike, says that’s OK.
“Absolutely,” he says. “We want to see her go to college and get into the medical field. She would be the first in the immediate family to do something like that, and we support that.”
The pregnancy and labor experience fueled Aguirre’s desire to enter the medical field.
“Being in labor made me want to be an OB/Gyn,” she says.
She hopes her experience might help others someday. While not sure if it would have made a difference for her, Aguirre says she wishes schools would teach more about birth control.
“The first time I learned about birth control in school was during a special class for pregnant students,” she says.
Once they got past the initial shock, Mike says, it was nice having a baby around.
“It was kind of like having Sabrina all over again,” he says. “I’m learning things over again, like how to properly put in a car seat, and since I work at a car dealership, that comes in handy.”
Sabrina takes complete responsibility for Janelle after school hours, Mike says. The child’s father and Sabrina Aguirre have maintained their relationship, and he contributes as much as he can, Mike says.
Little Janelle brightens her mom’s life, too.
“She’s funny and smart and makes me laugh and smile. Being a teenage mom has been tough, but she has made me want to achieve more and has given me a reason to do better.”
Brandon Mason, a New Orleans kid, was visiting family in Lufkin, Texas, during the summer 2005. He remembers waking up early, just a day or two into the trip, and feeling an overwhelming sense of homesickness.
“I went to find my mom and told her I wanted to go home,” he says. “She looked at me strange, and said that we couldn’t go home. Instead of explaining, she turned on the TV.”
Mason, then a seventh-grader, watched as storm maps, flood images and death tolls flashed across the TV screen. It took awhile to sink in, but Mason soon understood that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed his home and everything he owned.
“Later, people told me about the bridge that they got stuck on with no way out. I guess I was pretty lucky. Some of my friends, I never heard from again.
“We couldn’t go back to New Orleans, so mom moved us to Dallas. I expected cowboys and horses — I did not want to go.”
Mason, his mom and two sisters lived in hotels at first and later moved in with an aunt.
“I was depressed and nervous at first,” Mason says, “but when I started at Lake Highlands Junior High, everyone was pretty accepting.”
Academically, Lake Highlands is different from New Orleans “in a good way”, Mason says.
“In New Orleans, I was one of the only kids I knew who raised my hand in class and really tried to do well in school, but here, a lot of kids are like that. There’s a little more competition, but that’s OK.”
With eyes twinkling beneath dangling dreadlocks, Mason says he met friend Tytiana Thomas when he tagged her as competition.
“I noticed her because she was outdoing me in class, and I’m not used to that. Once I finally got her to give me her phone number, we became good friends. She has been a good influence on me.”
His participation in football and AVID — he’s the club president — also has contributed to his success, he says.
“I wanted to quit AVID after the first year, but they promised it would get more meaningful over the years — it did,” Mason says. “The group kept me focused and even became like a family to me.”
Football Coach Scott Smith says Brandon, like his former teammate Dewayne Chandler, “bought into football, and the team bought into him. He’s a leader on and off the field.”
Looking back, Mason believes the experience with Hurricane Katrina, however painful at the time, turned out to be a new beginning.
“I still have friends, family back in New Orleans who ask me when I’m coming home, and I tell them, ‘Dallas is home.’”