Over the years, I've met several first-generation graduates who have often overcome enormous adversity to succeed. A first-generation graduate is determined and destined to make a better life for themself and their family, but sometimes they need a little push.
I first met William when he joined my mysteries elective a few months into senior year. Almost immediately I noticed that he had a bit of an attitude, and I wasn't sure what his problem was. He'd show up late to class or with a hat on (which was not allowed at my school), and if I said anything, he'd get angry. Even so, it was obvious that William was bright, and he was a strong writer. I knew if I was ever going to be able to help him, I'd have to break down the wall he always put up and get to know him a bit. I brought out my best weapon: my awesome sense of humor. After working with teenagers for so long, I had a gift for playfully disarming sarcasm, and it helped me reach William.
An Unstable Home
When I asked William about his family, he said "My sister was really smart. She'd read and write in her notebooks for hours, but she was lazy in school. She couldn't get up in the morning, and she'd sleep in class. Finally, she dropped out. My brother ended up doing the same."
William told me that his parents divorced when he was in eighth grade. His father moved to New Hampshire, so William spent his first two years of high school in Massachusetts, and then moved in with his dad for junior year. Toward the end of that year, however, he stopped going to school, got a job at a car wash, and began sharing an apartment with a coworker. When he got in an argument with his roommate, he decided to move back to Boston.
His mother said he could live in her home if he returned to high school, so William agreed. Although he never told me at the time, William was living in his mother's house by himself, and that house was in foreclosure. His mother lived with her boyfriend, so William lived in the upstairs unit of the building with no heat or electricity. He ran an extension cord from a downstairs neighbor to his unit and used a space heater to keep warm. He couldn't turn the lights on or let anyone know he was there.
William didn't have much money and he needed a job. I knew my six-building apartment complex was looking for a security guard, so I recommended William. He was thrilled. "It was the first job where I earned double-digit pay," he said. "Ten dollars an hour."
The Long Road to Graduation
At the end of the school year, William was short on credits. His guidance counselor told him that in order to graduate, he'd need to come back to high school the following year and take classes for one semester—to the end of January. I knew William was disappointed that he wouldn't be graduating with his class, but I encouraged him to persevere. He did. I was happy to see William in my senior English class that September, where I could keep an eye on him.
William finished all his coursework in January, and we were both ecstatic when he walked at graduation in June 2010. We lost touch in the years after, until last year, when I was surprised by my doorbell ringing on Mother's Day. A delivery man handed me a beautiful basket from Edible Arrangements, and the card read "Thank you for everything you did for me and for being a second mom. -William." I reached out to him immediately to thank him.
The Secret to Success
As we caught up, I asked what motivated William to stay in school and graduate. "Well," he laughed, "I had you throwing your stats at me all the time. You were always telling me how high my chances were for living in poverty, or else you were telling me how much less I'd make over my lifetime if I didn't graduate high school. I listened to that. Plus, my eyes were open to the world. I saw my mom and sister, and they weren't doing well financially. I saw how you did your job; you didn't see it as a job. You were doing what you loved. I saw all the passion you put into it. You were always hustling. I saw how many people you helped, and all of that was motivation for me. I really wanted to be a first-generation graduate."
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William says that any student in his situation today needs to remember to stay focused and motivated. "Everyone can adapt to situations. I only needed a lamp and a space heater, so I adapted to it. I often thought 'It would be nice to have some lights, cable, and TV,' so that was motivation, too."
After he graduated, William got a job as a security guard with an agency that managed the local airport. He did his job so well and was so well-liked that when that agency lost its contract, the new contractor hired William. After a year, he was promoted to supervisor. This first-generation graduate is now an account manager at an international security company, and I am so proud of all he has accomplished.