“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.
Twice a week after school, Leticia Vargas takes the DART bus to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, where she volunteers.
Then, after dark usually, she rides the bus home.
Volunteerism and community service are priorities for Vargas, 18.
“I’ve been getting help since I was 6 years old,” she says. “So I like helping other people.”
Vargas was born with one leg shorter than the other. Her family came to Texas from Mexico four years ago so that she could receive care at Scottish Rite.
In 2007, she had surgery to elongate her shorter leg, and the recovery time was about one year. But just as her healing was in the home stretch, her new bone growth broke, and doctors had to start over. In all, she was in the hospital for about two years.
But Vargas wasn’t sitting there feeling sorry for herself; she noticed there were children in the hospital with worse problems.
“At Scottish Rite Hospital, my life totally changed because I realized that there are many problems going on in the world,” she says.
“I never thought I would go to college, but when I went to the hospital and saw all the little children who need help, I decided to study nursing.”
Vargas looks up to Scottish Rite nurse Emily Elerson, who says Vargas spoke little English and rarely made eye contact when she first came.
“She kept her head down,” Elerson says. “Over the years, she’s blossomed into this beautiful girl who speaks English fluently.”
Vargas’ leg finally healed well enough last year that she started her senior year at Woodrow Wilson High School on crutches.
Now she walks on her own with a little wobble in her gait, but it’s hardly noticeable because her most prominent feature overshadows all others: She smiles like sunshine.
“She’s going to be great at anything she wants to do, and I’m excited to see what the future’s going to hold for Letty,” Elerson says. “She’s going to be an asset to the nursing profession, and any college would be so lucky to get her.”
Next semester, Vargas plans to enroll at El Centro College for its respected vocational nursing program. One of eight children, she will be the first person in her family to attend college.
William Hartfield was the class clown, but not in a good way.
He gained the admiration of his classmates by clowning teachers, walking out of class, boldly using his cell phone, and snagging hall passes to roam the school.
“They called me a comedian,” he says. “I can’t do all that now.”
He did many a stint in alternative school because of his antics, and during the last one, he had a revelation.
“I was just ready to get out of school, so I realized that I have to get serious,” he says.
Now, Hartfield is focused on his work, and he doesn’t seek popularity. He keeps to himself and avoids the “in” crowd. He hangs around a few like-minded friends who want to keep their noses clean and their futures bright.
These days his parents, teachers and counselors hear only good things about William Hartfield.
“This year, he has been out of trouble and on the right track,” says counselor Carlita Wilson. “And he’s on the ‘A’ honor roll.”
Hartfield works part-time at an East Dallas daycare, but he wants to attend Eastfield College and then Prairie View A&M University to study business. He wants a good job so he can help take care of his mom, dad and little sister.
“I want to get rich one day and take care of my parents and my family, and they won’t have it so hard,” he says. “I want to own my own business and be happy working for me.”
Roxana Cruz’s friends say she’s spoiled.
The 18-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School senior wears trendy Ugg boots. She carries a designer handbag. She rocks an FC Barcelona scarf. And she drives a Ford Mustang, for which her mom gives her gas money.
“I want to get a job, but my mom won’t let me. She always says, ‘No, because then you’ll start to like money, and you’ll want to get a job instead of going to college,’” Cruz says.
Cruz, who is in the top 10 percent of her class, has been accepted to seven colleges, and recently chose the University of Texas at Austin. She’ll be the first person in her family to attend college.
Her mom had Cruz when she was young and raised her alone, working as a painting contractor. But she always encouraged Roxana to do well in school so that she could have a better life.
“My mom always says to never give up and accomplish things that she never accomplished,” Cruz says. “It’s not easy growing up with only one parent. You feel discouraged, but in the end, it doesn’t matter.”
What matters, she says, is what you can do for yourself and others.
Cruz started tutoring kids from Zaragoza Elementary School after a Spanish-speaking mom in her aunt’s apartment complex asked the teen to help with her son’s homework. Now she works with a group of kids there twice a week — not as part of any organized program. She just saw a need and decided to meet it.
“It’s hard getting them to learn because most of them are not fluent English-speakers,” she says. “But I understand what that’s like.”
Even though Cruz was born in Texas, Spanish is her first language, and she had to learn English fluency in elementary school.
At UT, she wants to study social work, and then pursue a medical degree and become a pediatrician.
Travoy Martinez has a football scholarship to York University in Toronto.
The scholarship is a big deal on its own, but it’s an even bigger deal because Martinez tore his knee cartilage last year and missed four games, right around the time colleges were scouting him.
He was relying on football to get him into college, and at the end of the season, he had few offers. But he signed with York, and he will soon become the first person in his family to attend college.
Martinez makes good grades now, but in his freshman and sophomore years at Mesquite Poteet High School, he did the minimum, and sometimes less. He made passing grades to stay eligible during football season, but the rest of the year, he blew off school, regularly making Cs and Ds on his six-week report cards.
But in his junior year, Martinez transferred to Woodrow Wilson High School, where teachers and coaches encouraged him to step it up. He turned his academic life around and, since he transferred, makes all As and Bs.
“If I hadn’t taken off my ninth and 10th grade years, I would have a higher GPA,” he says. “And I would have more options now.”
Martinez has a lot of potential, says athletic director Bobby Estes.
“As good a football player as he is, he’s just as good a kid,” Estes says.
Martinez’s maternal grandmother, who was his rock since birth, died when he was in eighth grade, and he puts his best foot forward in her memory. In college, he wants to study kinesiology and become a high school coach.
“I want to be a coach and help kids in the inner cities,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you come from; it matters where you’re going.”
Priscilla Martinez has something to prove.
When she became pregnant at 14, she caught flak from everyone — teachers, family members, friends, strangers.
“First of all, people didn’t think I would continue my education, but I told myself I wasn’t going to be like that,” she says.
“I was going to prove all those people wrong and prove that I can finish school.”
She’s doing it, too.
The 17-year-old is a National Honor Society member who has been on the on the “A” honor roll at Woodrow Wilson High School for two years. She took as many summer school classes as possible, and is graduating a year early. In the fall, she’ll attend El Centro College to become a sonogram technician. After that, she wants a nursing degree from Texas Woman’s University.
Assistant principal Dinnah Escanilla notices Martinez’s hard work.
“She is doing very well balancing motherhood and academics,” Escanilla says.
The unmarried girl lives at home with her mother, a 16-year-old brother and a 4-year-old sister. Her daughter, Angelina, is 3.
Martinez stays up late to finish homework because her only study time is when Angelina is asleep. She doesn’t have time for a social life, and many friendships have faded since her daughter was born.
“When I became a mother, I didn’t really talk to them that much because now I had all this responsibility,” she says.
Martinez wants to have a good job, buy her own house and car, and become self-reliant.
“People criticize me, and they don’t even know me. It makes me feel bad,” she says. “That keeps me motivated. To show people that you can do it is a big thing.”
Next year, her daughter starts preschool, and Martinez is in a rush to finish her own education so that she can focus on her daughter’s.
“I would like to be there, volunteering and being a part of her school,” she says.
Growing up in southeast Dallas, Ladarrius Dotson found trouble everywhere.
“I was fighting, missing school, and just succumbing to a lot of peer pressure that you go through in that neighborhood,” he says.
Teachers and coaches at Lincoln High School saw potential in him, though, and suggested that he transfer to another school so he could concentrate on academics.
So he started his senior year at Woodrow Wilson High School and made the varsity football team.
“He is now on the A/B honor roll and is in our Texas Real Estate Commission group,” says counselor Carlita Wilson.
But he had a setback. In September, the maternal grandmother who had raised Dotson from infancy died two days before his 18th birthday. Dotson’s mother was 15 when he was born, and he has never lived with her. His father is absent.
“It was a hard blow because she passed so unexpectedly,” he says. “I’ve had to do a lot of growing up in the past few months.”
Now he lives with another grandparent. But his grandma is still his greatest motivator.
“One of the main things she used to tell me was to make sure I graduate and make something of my life,” he says. “So that’s why I want to be successful.”
In the fall, Dotson will attend Lane College in Tennessee. He wants to major in business and become an entrepreneur.