Coming back from a catastrophic injury, helping a parent bounce back from violent tragedy, overcoming socioeconomic limitations — teenagers here and everywhere deal with hardships, but few do so while keeping up with their academics and emerge as leaders.
It was a warm summer night when Jennifer Macias died.
The senior at Woodrow Wilson High School and captain of the Sweethearts Drill Team, climbed into the passenger’s seat of her cousin’s car after a soccer game. It was after 10 o’clock but they had nowhere to be, so they decided to joyride until Macias’ curfew at midnight.
“We were just driving around, and for some reason we were speeding,” Macias says, although she doesn’t actually remember speeding. That’s just what she has since been told.
“We were going 100 miles per hour, and apparently — I don’t remember — I was recording it on my snapchat. That was the last video I posted.”
While making a turn, Macias’ cousin lost control of the car and slammed into a pillar, striking Macias’ side of the vehicle.
It was 45 minutes before emergency officials could pry Macias, unconscious and bleeding extensively from the pelvis, out of the vehicle. It was almost too late. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, but paramedics were able to revive her.
The next thing Macias remembers is being in the hospital weeks later. Although she’d been conscious, a brain injury caused memory loss and other complications.
“I don’t really remember the hospital days, especially those first few weeks,” she explains. “I had no memory of what happened. I didn’t know what had happened to me, or how bad it was, until after I got out of the hospital.”
Her body was crushed from head to toe. She had arch bars on her teeth to prevent them from falling out, metal plates in her pelvis and hip socket and multiple metal rods and screws in her legs.
In an instant, life as she knew it was halted. For weeks she couldn’t talk and every movement was an excruciating effort. She certainly wouldn’t be dancing anytime soon.
After joining as a freshman and making it to captain her senior year, Macias was a staple on the Sweethearts squad and in the Woodrow dance program.
“The moment I saw her throw her first kick her freshman year, I knew she’d be captain her senior year,” says Lisa King, Woodrow dance teacher, who heads the Sweethearts team.
“Her form, her flexibility, and she has a very special presence while dancing. It doesn’t matter who’s dancing, your eye is always drawn to Jenn.”
She was fluent in all forms of dance from classical to jazz to cultural. Dance was all Macias wanted to do. Although her future as a dancer suddenly looked shaky, her friends and teammates refused to give up on her.
The day after the accident, King called the drill team’s second in command, Sophia Landers.
“The first thing [Landers] said to me was, ‘I don’t want to be captain. Jenn is our captain,’” King recalls.
“That told me in an instant how much [Macias’] team admired her. The admiration her team had for her made me realize that, no matter what happened, the girls would not have it any other way: She would always be our captain, whether she pulled through or not.”
Macias hadn’t recovered by the time football season arrived, so her spot at the 50-yard line remained empty.
At every game, the announcers introduced the officers, and when they announced Macias, they dedicated the halftime performance to their “fearless captain,” and always ended with, “We kick for you, Jenn.”
Watching recordings of the halftime shows was bittersweet for Macias.
“That was really nice of them, but it was sad and it was hard,” she explains, “because I was in a hospital bed. I couldn’t be with them on Friday nights, on my last year.”
It wasn’t until Macias was released from the hospital, bound to a wheelchair for long distances and a walker for short distances, that the emotions really hit her hard.
“I missed being home, but it hit me how much had changed,” she says. “It was weird. It felt so good being home. It felt like everything was normal, but it wasn’t. I would stay up late most nights. I would go on YouTube and watch old videos of me dancing. It made me more sad, but it felt good seeing it and crying.”
King made it clear Macias was still a part of the Woodrow dance program and put Macias to work helping a group of students with their choreography for “The Nutcracker.”
“It felt nice to be back, yet at the same time it was painful seeing them,” she explains.
Macias was slowly but steadily recovering, but she still felt like she had to cut out dance and completely rethink her future.
“Before [dance] I wanted to go into education,” she points out. “I like teaching, so I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can go into education.’”
When Macias went to King for advice, she was encouraged not to give up on dance.
King had also been in a near-fatal accident just a few weeks after she graduated high school. Like Macias, she was shaken both physically and emotionally, but she eventually pushed through and continued to dance.
She insisted Macias could do the same, although at first Macias wasn’t so sure.
“I told her, ‘I don’t know if I can do it. Just because you could do it doesn’t mean I’m strong. I’m not strong like you,’” Macias remembers. “It was kind of impossible for me to see myself dancing again after everything that happened.”
But King’s words resonated. Macias applied to the dance program at Texas Women’s University and in March found out she was accepted as a dance major.
“She has always inspired others,” King says. “She’s special, and now she has fought her way back from this tragedy.”
Determined not to let the accident prohibit her, Macias is moving forward and working toward becoming a dance teacher.
“People tell me all the time, ‘Don’t let [the accident] define you.’ I just listen to that,” she says. “Life keeps going, you know? I’m not always going to be stuck in a wheelchair, so I have to think about my future.”
Nothing is going to stop Woodrow Wilson High School senior Kadrian Oliver from going to college — not poverty, not academic setbacks and not a terrifying run-in with a gunman who assaulted her mother.
Kadrian’s mom, Alyce, recognized Kadrian’s potential from a young age. Kadrian started reading as a toddler and even then had a thirst for knowledge. Alyce tried to expose her to as much of it as possible because she wanted her to go to college to build a better life, but getting there hasn’t always been easy.
Alyce and Kadrian are very different. Alyce was a troublemaker when was in high school.
“I always wanted better, but I didn’t think it was really possible,” she says. “Life just happened around me — a lot of unloveliness. My career in high school was about being the baddest, looking good and making sure no one was going to mess me over. I excelled in science and math, but I didn’t do it.”
That was exactly what she didn’t want for Kadrian.
“I knew that something was possible, so I just packed in what I had in me, and I hid it in my child,” Alyce explains. “Kadrian got no toys. She got books. We’re talking the classics, the Bible, history.”
“Anatomy and physiology,” Kadrian adds.
“Literature. Everything in sight,” Alyce says. “I thought, ‘Hey, I can expose to her what I want her to see.’ I bought her the book, ‘Africana Woman,’ and that’s how I taught her black history.”
When Kadrian was growing up, their small family — Alyce, Kadrian and her brother, Khahari — bounced around the Dallas area and from school to school, usually due to financial hardships. At times Kadrian and Khahari went to good schools, and other times their schools were less than stellar, but Kadrian was determined not to let that stop her from learning. She continued to read and research.
In some ways Kadrian was a typical child. In seventh grade she was in karate, book club and she read a lot of Manga. In other ways she had a curiosity that went far beyond that of a typical 12 year old.
“I remember we had Japanese vocabulary tests in karate, and in my Manga books I would see author’s notes written in full Japanese and I wanted to know what it said,” she explains.
And just like that, she found a website with Japanese phonics and began to teach herself Japanese, which she did for several years.
At the same time she was learning about the power of belief and positive thinking.
“I was on this belief kick and what I wanted was mine, so I started going after it,” she says.
When Kadrian learned about the international educational foundation International Baccalaureate (IB), she immediately knew it was the ticket to a good college and she began searching for a school in Dallas that offered it.
The middle school she attended at the time wasn’t challenging enough. Knowing she wanted to be in an IB school, she pushed herself academically so she’d be prepared for a more rigorous workload.
That work paid off when she was accepted into Woodrow’s IB program to which she commuted from her home in South Dallas.
The school’s principal Kyle Richardson immediately saw her potential, and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d be headed for a good college.
“He was the first person to tell Kadrian that she could graduate from Woodrow and go to one of the top 50 colleges,” Alyce recalls, tearing up at the memory.
Everything seemed to be falling into place. Kadrian remembers her first year at Woodrow as a celebratory one. She wanted to try everything — and she did. She made both the cheer team and the debate team. Although people warned her the IB program would be “too hard,” she wasn’t deterred. She excelled.
Then two years ago, the Oliver family’s perseverance was tested.
It was late August in 2014. The family was up before the sun because Kadrian had cheer practice. At the time they were living in South Dallas and were on their way to catch the bus. They stopped to enjoy the sight of the moon above them when they heard a voice across the street. Kadrian’s brother said good morning to the stranger.
Through the darkness, the stranger rushed toward them. They saw he was holding a gun.
First he demanded money. As Alyce searched for her wallet, the man threated Kadrian and her brother, pointing the gun at both of them, even grabbing Khahari by the hair. Khahari screamed, but Kadrian remained calm.
“I kept telling him, ‘Khahari, just calm down. Calm down. Everything is going to be OK.’ Visually I remember everything but the gun,” Kadrian says. “I remember exactly what the man looked like. I knew he had it, but I don’t remember seeing the gun ever.”
Alyce adds, “And yet when he pointed it at her, she leaned right into it. She made him so uncomfortable he couldn’t keep the gun on her.”
Alyce asked the man to let Kadrian and Khahari go back to the house, which he did. He made Alyce stay with him, but Kadrian and her brother walked home, dazed, and sat on the porch to wait for their mom.
The man raped Alyce at gunpoint in an alley and then released her. She ran home to her kids and they called the police. DNA analysis led to the eventual capture of Van Dralan Dixson, a serial rapist who terrorized South Dallas for more than two decades.
In April 2015 Dixson pled guilty to four counts of aggravated sexual assault and two counts of aggravated robbery, although police believe he was responsible for at least nine attacks.
The family was shaken, but Kadrian remained positive and helped her family do the same.
“Kadrian was in the spotlight about reminding us how to feel when things happened,” Alyce points out.
“Bad things happen and good things happen all the time,” Kadrian explains. “We try to look at things in the most positive way possible because we’ve experienced and learned that the way we look at things actually changes what they are and how they come to affect us.”
But they all still had to make the time and effort to deal with the emotional aftermath. Kadrian pulled away from debate.
“I didn’t want to get back into debate after that incident,” Kadrian explains. “With debate you become super critical and I didn’t want to feel any more anger or hate than I needed toward him.”
And cheer became a struggle as well. She wanted to do the best she could, but her family no longer left the house before daylight, which meant that she was often late to practice, so she dropped out.
“Sophomore year I kind of shut my classmates out,” she says. “It was just trying to feel good and focus on what was in me, to keep building on myself.”
“To keep going,” Alyce adds.
The IB program grew more difficult her junior year. Math and French came easily for her, but she struggled in chemistry, English and history. She questioned whether or not she should continue in IB.
“I was afraid to ask for help because I had been off the scene for a while,” Kadrian says. “… I thought I was incompetent and so I reacted by not doing anything.”
“She kept it from me,” Alyce points out. “I kept asking her how things were going and she told me, ‘Everything is great,’ every day.”
“Looking back, I don’t know what was so difficult,” Kadrian says, “but it was so difficult. I just couldn’t finish anything.”
She kept her head down and dedicated herself to her schoolwork. She found she was more motivated working in groups, so she returned to debate and joined the robotics team. Although she didn’t know any coding, robotics fascinated her.
“That felt good for me,” she says. “That was a part of me getting back into the groove of doing school. I made a lot of friends on that team.”
With the help of her teachers, she kept her grades up and pursued her dream of going to college by applying for University of Texas at Dallas and Temple University in Japan. It taught her three important lessons she can take with her to college:
“Take accountability, don’t be ashamed, be proud, and ask for help,” she says.
The first time Woodrow Wilson High School’s basketball coach, Patrick Washington, laid eyes on Woodrow senior Shakshi Davis, he was a tall, lanky eighth-grader shooting hoops by himself on a neighborhood court.
“I was leaving school one day and something told me that instead of going my normal way, I went the opposite way to get to the highway,” Washington says.
“I drove by the park across the street where the hardtop is, and I saw this kid about 5’11” out there with an old tattered basketball. It was one of those rubber basketballs with little spots missing on it where the rubber had been torn. He was out there shooting.”
Washington stopped to watch him. After Davis knocked down a couple of baskets, Washington got out his car to introduce himself and ask him where he went to school. He learned Davis went to J.L. Long Middle School and, although he loved basketball, he had never played on a team. No one had ever asked him to play on a team and he didn’t have money for shoes or equipment, he said.
“I said, ‘OK, I tell you what, I like your shot. I don’t know that you’ll ever be able to be a superstar basketball player, but you have a good shot,’” Washington recalls.
Washington told Davis he had some old basketballs in the back of his car and offered him one. Washington then looked down at Davis’ feet and noticed his shoes were held together with duct tape.
“Immediately it just gripped my heart, and I felt compelled to do something,” Washington says. “Whether he ever decided to play basketball for me or not, I don’t want to see any kid like that.”
Davis happened to wear the same size shoe as Washington, so the coach gave him a pair.
“I told him, ‘Just use these and if you ever make it to Woodrow Wilson, you’re going to play basketball for me. You just keep shooting your jumpers,’” Washington says.
What Davis didn’t realize at the time was how much his run-in with Washington would change his life.
Washington has earned a reputation for getting his players into college, usually on basketball scholarships. In the 17 years he has been a coach at Woodrow, only a handful of his players skipped college.
What Washington didn’t realize at the time was the real reason why Davis hadn’t ever tried out for a basketball team: Davis was afraid of getting to know people — or rather, of people getting to know him.
Davis is Hindu. His family is a part of the Hare Krishna community in East Dallas and is heavily involved at Kalachandji’s, the Hare Krishna temple that moonlights as a vegetarian Indian buffet. He was afraid the other students would spurn him if they found out.
“My family is weird because I have an Indian religion, I live in America, but my dad’s side of the family is African, so my middle name is African,” he says. “Because of my religion I’m vegetarian, so that’s kind of weird.”
He went to TKG Academy in elementary school where he was surrounded by other Hindu kids and families. Public school was a culture shock and some of the other kids bullied him in junior high because of a small ponytail he wore as a part of Hinduism.
He responded by isolating himself.
“At first I really didn’t relate to anyone once I got to public school,” he says. “I was a loner. That’s why I liked to shoot a lot.”
He spent hours shooting baskets at the neighborhood court.
“My form wasn’t good or anything, but I would just stay there all day and make shot after shot,” he said. “I’d make at least 1,000 shots per day.”
When Washington approached him, Davis recognized the opportunity. So as soon as he started at Woodrow, Davis joined the basketball team. He still was quiet and reserved. He didn’t bond in the locker room the way many of the other players did. He didn’t eat in the cafeteria, but instead brought a vegetarian lunch to school every day.
“When I first met him, it was like an act of Congress to get him to talk,” Washington points out.
Not only was he serious about basketball, Davis also was bserious about academics. When the coach started talking with him and his family about college, Davis relished the possibility of playing college basketball and he continued to devote himself to practicing for hours every day.
He slowly began to warm up to other students at Woodrow, especially his teammates. He noticed the other students were very open with each other, and by the time he reached varsity, he decided he should open up as well.
“I decided it’s worth it. I’ve been here for long enough. People should just know,” Davis explains.
He braced himself for hostility, but to his surprise the other students were intrigued. They were eager to know more and asked him questions about his family and faith. His religion did give him a reputation, but not in the way he expected.
“I thought being different was a bad thing, but once I started to open up to people I realized it was a good thing,” he says. “I started getting to know more people and people started talking to me more. People knew me because I’m different. It has actually benefited me a lot more than I realized it would.”
Of course, as Washington points out, Davis is hard not to like.
“Because of his demeanor and how he handles himself,” Washington says. “It’s really tough to play for me, but if I get onto him about something that he’s not doing he never ever talks back. He just says, ‘I gotcha. I gotcha,’ and he goes immediately and tries to correct it. He’s a joy to coach. He really is.”
This year Davis’ hard work has paid off. He’s a starter for the Woodrow basketball team after carving out a name for himself by shooting at 42 percent from the three-point line.
But he isn’t stopping there. An attitude like his will take him places, Washington believes — like college. Washington has been talking with colleges about Davis and he says there are at least a couple of small schools interested in having him on their basketball team.
Davis says he’ll be happy wherever Washington finds a place for him. He plans to take Washington’s advice to go where he’s wanted. After all, that worked for him at Woodrow.
“Just knowing somebody actually wants you,” he says. “That was it.”
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