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Standout students: Sometimes the toughest lessons are learned outside the classroom

High school and our experiences there often leave lifelong memories. Or scars. Imagine navigating those formative and frequently frustrating years while bearing an extraordinary burden — illness, disability, poverty, homelessness, parental abandonment or death, for example.  The graduating seniors featured herein have endured a lifetime’s worth of adversity in their 18 years. In spite of, or possibly partly because of these challenges, they have managed to shine.

Meet tomorrow’s leaders.

Woodrow Wilson High School senior Mario Ramirez: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Mario Ramirez: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Mario Ramirez: Just dance

Woodrow Wilson High School senior Mario Ramirez never thought he’d be a dancer, and he definitely never predicted he would attend the University of Texas at Austin to study dance.

“I am terrified,” he admits with a laugh. “I wasn’t even planning to go to college, but I’m going because of dance. It’s so amazing how dance has helped me personally.”

And it all started as an accident.

“I wanted athletics [at Alex W. Spence Talented and Gifted Academy],” he explains, “but they messed up my schedule, and I had dance class instead.”

From the time Ramirez was a child, helping his mom has been his No. 1 motivation.

“My mother is my foundation,” he says. “My mother is what has kept me going, not just in dance,” but in all aspects of life.

During Ramirez’s early years, his alcoholic father was abusive toward Ramirez and his mother. Although Ramirez has some fond memories of his father taking him to the park or Burger King, his dominant childhood memories are those of running and hiding from his father. He even has a permanent knot under his eye from being struck by a belt buckle as a child.

“We would call the police and he would go to jail, and then he would come back and apologize and promise he was going to change,” Ramirez says. “That’s what I remember about him.”

When Ramirez was 5, they left his father and hid from him by moving around and switching schools regularly. His mother supported him and his little brother by selling tamales, but the small family always struggled financially.

“My mother wanted to give us everything,” Ramirez says. “We would go to school and she would work and work and work. And I would notice how tired she would be, so that had a huge impact on me. I want my mom to be healthy.”

When Ramirez was accepted into Spence TAG Academy in fourth grade, the family was able to stop moving around so much. That was where Ramirez first fell in love with dance, and he considered applying for Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, but his dance teacher at Spence encouraged him to look into Woodrow.

During a festival, he saw Woodrow’s dance team perform a flamenco dance routine, which caught his attention.

“I just remember seeing red,” he recalls. “When I think of red, I think of passion and fire and all these things that are strong. There were fans and ballet technique and culture — all these things.”

Aside from the one class he took at Spence, Ramirez had almost no formal dance training when he began training with Woodrow’s dance teacher, Lisa King.

“I was struggling to keep my grades up and I had no discipline. I have to thank Ms. King because she swept me up. She told me that if I didn’t pass my classes then I couldn’t dance. That was terrifying to me.”

“I was struggling to keep my grades up and I had no discipline. I have to thank Ms. King because she swept me up. She told me that if I didn’t pass my classes then I couldn’t dance. That was terrifying to me.”

He also struggled to find his identity. As a freshman, he hid behind his shoulder-length hair, which he straightened daily. He was especially self-conscious about the knot under his eye left by his dad, even though it’s hardly visible.

“Confidence and a foundation of pride, that’s what I lacked,” Ramirez says. “I came to high school with these people who were proud and confident of dancing. I wanted that.”

He began participating in folkloric and Aztec dances, which taught him about his own Hispanic roots. He became proud of his Mexican culture, “not only knowing and acknowledging my roots, but appreciating my ancestors,” he explains.

Woodrow Wilson High School senior Mario Ramirez: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Mario Ramirez: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

As he grew more confident and comfortable with himself, he eventually cut off his long hair. By junior year, Ramirez began taking dance more seriously, and it continued to open doors for him. King began encouraging him to attend college and to audition for the UT-Austin.

Ramirez hadn’t pursued dance with the intent to study it, but “it was beginning to call me, I guess you could say,” he says. The UT dance program is “a very hard program to get into,” according to King, but she believed Ramirez could do it.

“He could barely do anything when he first started the Woodrow dance program,” King says, “but this boy is just turning like a top now.”

Up to that point, Ramirez hadn’t seen college as a part of his future. At home Ramirez’s mother was working both days and nights to make ends meet. Ramirez worked part-time to take some of the load off his mother, squeezing it in between school, dance practice and travel for performances (including a trip to Spain, which was a “very huge deal” for him).

Ramirez initially resisted King’s pressure to apply to college but eventually decided to audition for her sake. He bought a Greyhound bus ticket and found someone in Austin he could stay with. When he arrived at the University of Texas, he couldn’t believe the level of the dancers around him.

“I was intimidated, but I thought to myself, ‘I can do this. I just have to do what I’ve been trained to do,’ ” he remembers. “I felt prepared.”

In February Ramirez received an email saying he’d been accepted into the dance company. He will enroll in UT-Austin this coming fall.

As excited and proud as Ramirez’s mother is to see her oldest son go to college, she’s also sad to see him move so far away.

“Mexican families aren’t used to being separated from the family and living at distances,” he explains, “but she is extremely happy for me and supports me fully.”

King says he’s become the poster child of the dance program at Woodrow.

“The other students look at him and go, ‘OK, maybe I can do it, too,’ ” King says. “He’s really raised the level of the department.”

Rachel Myers: Her sister’s keeper

Rachel Myers: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rachel Myers: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

For most of Rachel Myers’ childhood and young adulthood, one thing has dominated the life of the gradating Lakehill Preparatory senior: her little sister, Sarah.

Rachel was 3 years old when Sarah was born. As she walked through the hospital, the new big sister eagerly demanded, “Where’s my baby?” over and over again. But when Rachel saw Sarah for the first time, she found her baby sister didn’t look like the other babies she had seen.

Sarah was born with CHARGE Syndrome, a condition that often causes life-threatening birth defects, including complex heart defects and breathing problems. She was covered in tubes and other medical devices as doctors worked to save her life. Baby Sarah was launched into a series of surgeries, and when she wasn’t in the hospital, her condition required round-the-clock care, which kept Rachel’s mother, Lori, on constant nurse duty.

The Myers family was forever changed.

“When you have a sick child who requires as much attention as Sarah, you worry about your other children and how they’ll handle it,” Lori explains. “That’s a big fear when all you can do is sit and watch your kid struggle and you can’t help them. Like, ‘You’re on your own. Good luck with that test.’ ”

In a world where “helicopter parenting” is the new normal, Rachel spent much of her childhood fending for herself. When she was 5, her youngest sister, Emma, was born. Because Sarah was so sick, Rachel often helped her mother care for Emma. “Family vacations” were trips to Corpus Christi for surgery, and most family activities revolved around Sarah’s illness in some way.

Rachel went through phases of craving adult attention, which she eventually channeled into sports. She immersed herself in softball, cheer, track and swimming. She became incredibly competitive, both academically and athletically.

“Outside of the home, being able to focus and strive and succeed at something different, it was a distraction, almost,” Rachel explains.

“When you have a sick child who requires as much attention as Sarah, you worry about your other children and how they’ll handle it. That’s a big fear when all you can do is sit and watch your kid struggle and you can’t help them. Like, ‘You’re on your own. Good luck with that test.’ ”

The Myers family also became involved in Night Owls through Highland Park United Methodist Church, which is a faith-based respite program for children with special needs and their siblings.

“I’ve met so many great families and adults,” Rachel explains, “like volunteers and therapists who’ve helped me through when I’m annoyed with [Sarah], when she’s hurting us because she’s hurting and coping with the struggles of all that.”

Because of her syndrome, Sarah lives in constant pain, and sometimes she acts out by hitting, kicking and biting her family members — or anyone who happens to be nearby. She usually targets people who are smaller than her, so because Rachel is bigger, Rachel is able to help Lori calm Sarah down.

“As a family we divide and conquer,” Lori says.

Rachel and Lori recall a particularly bad day for Sarah during a recent visit to Matt’s Rancho Martinez in Lakewood. When Sarah started throwing a fit, Lori kept Sarah from hitting her head on the concrete sidewalk while Rachel ran to get the car. Together, they managed to drag Sarah into it.

“I was crying,” Lori remembers. “Any other teenager would be looking around to see who’s staring, but Rachel just jumps in and helps. When I’m not doing OK, she can step in until I can gain my composure. With Sarah and her aggressiveness, it’s very emotionally tolling, and watching your child suffer, you can only do so much for so many days. So Rachel has helped a lot.”

Despite the many challenges and sacrifices, Rachel says Sarah’s illness also has had positive effects on her and her family.

“It’s made us closer,” Rachel says. “I’m a very family-oriented person because you have to be. You can’t have someone in the family who can’t help when the situation needs it.”

Her relationship with her sister also has taught her how to interact with people with special needs, which has greatly impacted her future plans.

In the fall, Rachel will attend Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. She was accepted to a six-and-a-half year, direct-entry physical therapy program. She plans to become a pediatric physical therapist, and she hopes to work with people with special needs.

She thinks physical therapy will provide a good balance of the passions and skills she has developed over the years, such as empathy, athleticism and personal drive.

“It was one of those things that when people asked me, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ I knew what I was going to say,” Rachel says. “I didn’t even have to think about it. It just felt right.”

Though Lori worried over the years about her oldest daughter’s development, today she believes Rachel is proof that a family illness can shape siblings into better people.

“It’s so great to see that a sibling can turn out amazing,“ Lori says, “and she is.”

Kati Nash: Eyes on the prize

Kati Nash: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Kati Nash: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, no matter what, Bryan Adams High School senior Kati Nash is going to college.

Growing up in a single-parent home, Nash is no stranger to financial struggle, which is why she is determined to earn a college degree to create a better life for herself.

“It used to make me so upset,” Nash recalls, “because we had no money and all this stuff that needed to be fixed and paid off. We’ve always needed more than we have — not wanted more, needed more.”

During her senior year, Nash wanted two things: to be a cheerleader, which she accomplished and then funded by working part-time for East Dallas sculptor Frances Bagley, and to be accepted to college.

“Neither one of my parents went to college,” Nash explains, “and that’s why I’m pushing so hard to go to college. It’s always been my dream. My whole family has known that, although I don’t know if they knew that I was serious.”

As soon as her senior year began, Nash was the first one in the college prep room applying to as many schools as possible, says Amina Igen, the college advisor at Bryan Adams.

“She would come every lunch period, to the point where her teacher allowed her to be in here during her fourth period,” Igen says. “She applied to seven schools. She applied to FAFSA [Federal Student Aid]. Everything about her is very focused and determined.”

Nash doesn’t have a lot of family support for her college dreams, says Laterica White, a counselor at Bryan Adams. “She struggles a lot with family dynamics,” White says — particularly of jealously from family members who didn’t go to college. “But I think it made her more driven.”

Nash began the school year full of vigor. Once she figured out how to navigate the college and scholarship application system, she also began assisting Igen during fourth period by helping other students apply for college, Igen says. At times Nash even encouraged students who otherwise might not have applied. “She’s very respected by her peers,” Igen points out.

“I’ve lost people, but it’s never been family members all at once. It has been really hard.”

But at the time, Nash had no idea what kind of year was coming down the pike.

At the beginning of the school year, Nash found out she has Type 1 Diabetes. She missed a lot of school, but she didn’t let the accompanying sickness keep her down for long.

She continued working for Bagley to pay for her senior expenses and even pitch in with expenses at home like bills or rent, and she managed to keep up her grades as well.

Then her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer in early 2014, and doctors gave him six to eight months to live.

Nash was close to her grandfather, who also lived in East Dallas, and she visited him frequently before and during his battle with cancer to take care of him and play with his dog, or just hangout and talk. Nobody’s perfect but, in Nash’s opinion, he was as close to the perfect grandfather as a man could be.

When he exceeded the doctor’s time limit, his grandchildren grew hopeful.

“He would end up in the hospital and it would scare us so bad,” Nash recalls. “We’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this might be the day.’ It was really stressful.”

He took a turn for the worse around Thanksgiving. When he began losing weight, the doctors told Nash and her family that he probably wasn’t going to pull through.

“That’s when I stopped going to school,” Nash says. “I would skip school to stay home and help take care of him because everybody worked.”

Nash had already missed several school days because of her illness, and now the missed days were starting to pile up.

In February, a week before her 18th birthday, Nash called her mother when school let out. Her mom didn’t answer. When her mother finally called back, Nash said she wanted to see her grandfather.

“She said, ‘You can’t,’ and I said, ‘Tell me what’s going on. I want to see him.’ And she said, ‘Kati, he just died.’ I was crying already, and I just started crying even harder.”

Nash had to miss two more days of school for her grandfather’s funeral. During the funeral, Nash’s dad called with more bad news: Her cousin had died in a car wreck.

“All the cousins on my dad’s side are really close,” Nash explains.

When Nash returned to school after her grandfather’s funeral, she told her teachers that she had yet another funeral to attend. The school almost didn’t let her miss school for her cousin’s funeral because she had missed so many days of school already, but Nash desperately wanted to be with her family.

“I’ve lost people, but it’s never been family members all at once,” Nash says. “It has been really hard.”

Her friends — all with the best intentions — kept telling her their stories of loss, but Nash was emotionally spent and wanted to be anywhere but at school. She had missed so much, however, that instead of taking some time off to recoup, she had to make up dozens of hours worth of missed time if she was going to graduate on time.

“She almost didn’t graduate this year because she spent so much time out of school,” says Shelby Lott, the community liaison with Bryan Adams High School.

Reeling from the loss and the snowball of missed school days, Nash briefly considered not going to college and moving to Malakoff, Texas, to be with her dad’s family to help take care of her cousin’s young daughter.

“I thought I wanted to be down there with them,” she says. “But then it hit me: No, you’ve got all this stuff going with college. If I move to be with them, I won’t do it. If I move down there, I’ll be miserable. It’s a trap.”

She dropped out of cheer and track and threw herself into making up for missed time. She had to coordinate with each of her teachers by being at school early or staying late — whenever her teachers were available and willing to meet with her.

“I haven’t been able to focus on any extracurricular activities because of my family and because I’ve been doing college stuff,” she explains. “I got to the point where I decided, ‘I don’t care about anything else. I want to get my college stuff done. I want to get through high school, and I want to leave.’ ”

In March Nash fulfilled her final make-up hours. Even better than that, she received an early admittance scholarship as well as an academic scholarship to Prairie View A&M, where she plans to study psychology and then go on to law school.

“My life-long dream is to be a judge,” she says. “I want to be someone who helps people.”

White, who works with hundreds of students who are struggling through difficult home lives, insists she’s never met anyone like Nash.

“She’s exceptional,” she says. “I’ve never met a student with her drive. She’s so focused and driven.”

Igen has a similar opinion: “She has been through a lot, and I think that’s what drives her.”


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By |2015-04-27T14:07:20-05:00April 24th, 2015|All Cover Stories, All Magazine Articles|1 Comment

About the Author:

Brittany Nunn
BRITTANY NUNN is the Lakewood/East Dallas editor. Email bnunn@advocatemag.com