High school graduation is a milestone. Some acquire their diploma easily. Others earn theirs against all odds. These graduating seniors didn’t let life’s blows keep them down. This month, they will cross the commencement stage knowing their tribulations made them stronger.

Dema Sane was excited about his new home.

Dema Sane / PHOTO BY Can Türkyilmaz

It was fall 2009, and the 17-year-old Senegal native landed in New York with plans to finish high school there.

His dad is a consultant who travels throughout the world, and his mom was living in New York at the time.

But soon after he arrived, he was in the hospital with malaria.

“I don’t know how that happened,” he says. “It’s fairly common in Senegal, but it’s unheard of in New York.”

He was in the hospital for a week, and it took months before he could climb a flight of stairs without utter exhaustion. Sane decided the Big Apple wasn’t for him. So he moved to Dallas, where he found a home with Alene Mathis, a Woodrow counselor whose church has a connection to Sane’s church in Senegal.

Now a 19-year-old senior, he says he has the highest grade-point average of anyone in his class (he’s not in the running for valedictorian because students with Advanced Placement credits outrank him). His favorite subjects are astronomy and global business.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the U.S.A.,” he says. “I have a love for English.”

Making friends wasn’t that hard, since people in Texas are friendly, Sane says. But adjusting to the culture has been difficult.

Kids are flashier here than in Senegal. They have strange haircuts. And school is different — more lax in some ways, stricter in others.

The worst part is the weather.

“In Senegal, there was a beach, and we used to go to the beach all the time,” he says. “I thought I would have no problem with the weather, but surprisingly, it was hot. It was really hot here.”

Mathis says Sane often gets homesick, although he doesn’t show it. He talks on the phone to his mom a lot.

“I don’t know if I could do it,” she says. “Especially not at that age. He’s so far away from anything familiar to him.”

Malaria is an illness that never quite goes away completely. But Sane is healthy enough that he played on the varsity basketball team, which went to the playoffs this year.

Sane doesn’t know where he’s going to college, but he has talked with George Washington University, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington and others about attending on a basketball scholarship.

Even though he was alone in Dallas, he found friendship and family in Woodrow.

“Playing sports helps because you make new friends, and they become like brothers to you,” he says.

After the accident, Reed Isaac was more worried about her little sister.

The 18-year-old Bishop Lynch senior and her 16-year-old sister were on the way to NorthPark to have their makeup done for homecoming on Oct. 2, 2010, when someone ran a stop sign and slammed into their passenger side door.

“I thought I was perfectly fine,” she says.

They went home, changed into their dresses and went to the dance.

“The next day, I didn’t wake up at all,” Isaac says. “Everyone was trying to wake me up, and I was completely gone.”

At the hospital, she was diagnosed with a severe concussion and sent home.

“It got worse to where I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk. Everything was really jumbled,” she says.

Reed Isaac / PHOTO BY Benjamin Hager

A neurologist diagnosed her with severe concussion and trauma-induced migraines in the midbrain. Over the following months, she would endure severe treatments she describes as “like chemo for your brain”, plus physical and speech therapy.

But most frustrating was learning differences she incurred.

“I would try to write things down, and it would come out as scribble scrabble,” she says.

When most of her college applications were due, Isaac was in the hospital, relearning to write and pronounce words.

“That was hard because I really couldn’t even think for myself, so my mom really had to help me,” she says.

Bishop Lynch president Ed Leyden says Isaac never considered graduating later or taking time off. She couldn’t interview with colleges because of her injuries, but she was determined to get into the best schools possible, he says.

“She wanted to come back here and be active here,” he says. “It took a lot of willpower, especially in dark times when she didn’t feel good.”

Isaac’s body and brain are healing, but she still struggles with learning differences. She has trouble with auditory processing, which means she can’t take effective notes in class. And she struggles with reading comprehension. It’s frustrating, but she says she is learning to work around her differences.

“At first I was sad, and then I was mad,” she says. “And then I realized it was OK because everyone has something to overcome.”

Recently, Isaac found out she was accepted to the University of Oklahoma, one of her top choices. She wants to study biochemistry and become a pediatric oncologist.

“You can’t take anything for granted because you never know when things are going to change,” she says. “I really appreciate my family more and being healthy. It’s made me a much stronger person.”

When T.D. Ikemenogo was younger, he didn’t care that much about school.

T.D. Ikemenogo / PHOTO BY Can Türkyilmaz

He did enough to get by, but he didn’t push himself.

That all changed June 24, 2009.

That night, his mom was at a conference in San Antonio. His dad, a cab driver, was working. Ikemenogo went to bed about 1 a.m., and he awoke to the phone ringing at 4 a.m.

“It was my mom telling me my dad was shot,” he says. “I thought it was a dream at first, and I started laughing like it was a joke, and then I felt sick because I realized it was real.”

Two carjackers had shot him in the lung, and he was in critical condition at Parkland.

At the time, Ikemenogo and his younger brother, both students at Bishop Lynch, were enrolled in summer school. The first day, they contacted the school to notify them they would be absent.

Ikemenogo considered dropping out of summer school classes.

“My dad couldn’t talk because he was in ICU,” he says. “And my mom couldn’t talk because she was crying all the time.”

He tried to think what his father, an immigrant from Nigeria, would say if he could ask him what to do.

“My dad puts education above everything,” Ikemenogo says.

So he and his brother went to school the next day. It was hard, he says. They couldn’t concentrate. They were sad and afraid. But they were there, and eventually, they completed their classes.

Evelyn Grubbs, the Bishop Lynch math teacher who was overseeing summer school that year, says Ikemenogo sets very high standards for himself.

“Of course, he was very upset when his dad was shot, but one thing of grave concern to him was that he didn’t have a ride to school,” Grubbs says. “We kind of banded together, and several of the teachers here picked him up for school, and then his uncle started bringing him. But he didn’t miss. He was not going to miss.”

It was “the worst summer ever,” Ikemenogo says. His dad couldn’t work, and without work, there was no income.

The air conditioner broke in July, and they didn’t have money to fix it. They didn’t have money to pay the water bill, and soon, their water was turned off.

Neighbors and friends pitched in to help the family, Ikemenogo says. But the ordeal gave him an epiphany.

Education is the most important thing. It’s the only way to have stability, a secure career, money in the bank.

“I realized I have to work as hard as I can because it’s hard to come up with money,” he says. “You can’t take things for granted.”

His dad pulled through, and he still drives a cab for a living. He walks with a bit of a limp in his step, Ikemenogo says, and he doesn’t like to talk about what happened.

Now Ikemenogo makes all A’s and B’s. He has been accepted to 12 schools, including Syracuse and Virginia Tech, although he hasn’t chosen a school yet.

He wants to study architecture or business.

At only 17 Edith Rodriguez knows exactly what she wants to do in life.

Edith Rodriguez / PHOTO BY Can Türkyilmaz

She wants to become a lawyer who helps abused women and children.

It’s personal for her.

When Rodriguez was 13 and living in her hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico, she fled to Texas with her mom, sister and brother.

“My father was always on drugs, and he was always abusing my mom, physically and verbally,” she says. “We were always hiding from him because he was so crazy.”

He set fire to their house, she says, and when it didn’t burn to the ground, he sold it so they would have nowhere to live. That’s when they came to Texas; they have temporary work visas, and they expect to gain permanent residency status in about two years.

Rodriguez’s mom worked and enrolled the kids in school at Woodrow Wilson High School and J.L. Long Middle School. They settled into life in our neighborhood.

It wasn’t easy for Rodriguez and her 11-year-old brother. Neither of them spoke any English. Rodriguez was told she would need an extra year of school, and at J.L. Long, she was put in the lowest-level classes. But in about a year, she could speak English fluently, for which she credits the ESL teachers at Long.

She takes extra classes through a computer-assisted learning program at Woodrow. She makes all A’s and B’s, and she graduates this month, on time.

Case Wallace, who teaches the computer-assisted learning program at Woodrow, says Rodriguez could have taken her time, especially considering she had to learn one of the world’s most difficult languages. But she put in overtime to graduate in four years.

Still, a cloud hangs over her.

A few years ago, her dad found them.

“My father was in New Orleans, and he tried to come here and get back with my mom, but my sisters and I told her to stay away from him,” she says.

He didn’t take rejection well.

One day, when Rodriguez’s mom was at work in an East Dallas taquería, her husband came in and stabbed her. He was trying to kill her, Rodriguez says, but her mom escaped serious injury. The father, who is a U.S. citizen, went to jail for aggravated assault.

Rodriguez works Saturday and Sunday at La Madeleine. And her mom has opened her own taco stand in Pleasant Grove. Rodriguez plans to take basic courses at community college, transfer to SMU and then go to law school.

Her dad gets out of jail in about a year.

Ask her if she’s worried about that, and she pauses. She throws her eyes to one corner of the room, and quietly, she says, “Only a little bit.”

She’s not sure what she’ll do once he’s out, but she knows she wants to stay in the United States.

“I wanted to come to school to get a better future so I can help other people,” she says.

Johnathan Velten studies about four and a half hours a day.

Johnathan Velten PHOTO BY Benjamin Hager

When Velten arrives home from school every day, he takes a 30-minute break, and then he hits the books.

His study regimen has been the same since elementary school. On average, he spends about four and a half hours a day on homework.

It takes Velten, a 19-year-old senior at Bishop Lynch, a little bit longer than most students because he has dyslexia.

The learning disability, which affects reading, was diagnosed when he was in first grade, which he repeated.

Starting in second grade, he worked with an alphabetic phonics tutor.

“You phonetically sound out words and decode them,” he says. “It’s what people naturally do when they read, but for me, I didn’t really do that.”

He learned years ago that he has to start reading assignments way ahead of the rest of the class to finish them at the same time. The worst part about having dyslexia was in fourth grade, when the teacher would ask students to walk to the front of the class and read one paragraph aloud. For Velten, it was torture. Everyone else could read the paragraphs, but when his turn came, he couldn’t pronounce words, and he stumbled around.

After a while, though, he says he figured out a trick. He learned the teacher’s system for calling on people to read, so he could count the paragraphs and figure which one he would be asked to read. While other students read their paragraphs, Velten wasn’t listening; he was reading his own assignment over and over until it was time to stand up and say it aloud.

That type of problem-solving has become part of his everyday life.

Certain tasks take longer for him. In middle school, he often would stay up until 11 or midnight doing homework, putting in six or eight hours. But he earned good grades, and he thinks that made high school seem easier for him.

And he doesn’t back down from challenges.

Velten is a good example for anyone struggling with learning disabilities, says Kristin Mannari, director of communications at Bishop Lynch.

“He was discouraged freshman year because he had to work so hard,” Mannari says. “But he has been steady and completely committed to academics.”

As a freshman at Bishop Lynch, he requested Coach Dunn’s history class because he knew and liked him from basketball camp at SMU. Counselors warned him it was a hard class, but he was determined to take it.

“At the beginning of the year, he helps you out a lot and gives you study guides for the tests,” Velten says. “But progressively, through the year, he expects you to become more and more independent.”

Velten says his parents always told him that as long as he tried and gave it his all, it would pay off, and now he sees that what they told him is true. School is not as hard for him as it used to be. Recently, he was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout, and he holds a first-degree black belt in karate.

Dyslexia, he says, is not a disability but a gift.

“It’s taught me to be dedicated to my work and figure out different ways to do my work,” he says. “Problem-solving comes naturally to me.”

Velten has been accepted to almost every college to which he applied, including St. Edward’s University, Austin College, Millsaps College and the University of North Texas. And several have offered him academic scholarships, he says. He hasn’t yet decided where to attend, but he wants to study pre-med or entrepreneurial business.


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.