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Overcoming odds in pursuit of education
SCHOOLS CallaGradBryanCarmona
Bryan Carmona gestures while delivering his message during the Calla High School Class of 2014 graduation. Carmona overcame health and other challenges while in pursuit of his high school diploma. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin

They beat the odds. They continue to beat the odds. And for years and generations to come, they will go on beating the odds.

Two words describe those who have bravely overcome life’s vicissitudes: hero, and saint. Translated in modern parlance, either word could also mean survivor to many.

Regardless of the moniker being given to such people, this is one time during the year when they are flushed out of the shadows of proverbial woodpiles where they have been toiling undetected even by the publicity radar of today’s omniscient and omnipresent social media. These are the young men and women whose high school diplomas were earned literally by their own blood, sweat, and tears.

There’s the story of Rashema Melson for one. The 18-year-old graduated valedictorian of her Washington, D.C., class and maintained a 4.0 grade point average. The icing on her academic cake is a full scholarship to Georgetown University, one of the nation’s top institutions of learning.

Not bad for one who lost her father before she even blew the candle on her first birthday cake. And not bad for a girl who has been living, with her three siblings and their mother, in a homeless shelter.

Closer to home, similar stories of courage and determination to succeed and improve their lot surfaced from members of the Class of 2014 at Calla High School and the Manteca Adult School.

Bryan Carmona, who was the student speaker at their graduation ceremony, is one such story. He managed to complete his high school studies and receive his diploma despite some setbacks, not least of which was congenital health problems. In the speech he delivered, he thanks his mom for her constant vigil on his side when he was “sick in my death bed,” making sure he never forgot to take his medicine, and helping him get dressed and ready in the morning “during my first years of school.” He thanked his dad not only for “showing me the meaning of life” but for being the kind of father who did not “walk out on the family when we didn’t have a house to live in, when we couldn’t afford rent, working overtime and paying rent plus bills, for not walking out on me… (throughout) all the times I caused trouble.”

Despite his physical challenges, Carmona managed to hold on to a part-time job while he was working on completing his high school diploma requirements at Calla.

“Throughout my journey, one thing that I learned was that no matter where you go, who you talk to, we are all beautiful people inside and out, in one way or another,” he said. To his fellow graduates, he said, “I hope everyone continues to make nothing but positive choices, and as long as I’m alive I will continue to offer a helping hand to all my friends and anyone who asks for help.”

It was that kind of firm determination which fueled Vincent Espinosa’s efforts to escape the revolving jail door that was the only constant in his teen-age years.

“I messed up so much,” he said as he delivered his extemporaneous speech after receiving his diploma during the simply Manteca Adult School ceremony held at the Manteca Unified District office in May. In the audience, his mother and grandmother silently wiped tears of joy.

His teacher Pam Lawder admitted that Espinoza came to Manteca Adult School “not in the best of circumstances,” and then smiles as the once difficult student eventually turned into a model student.

Espinoza is now moving ahead to continue his academic quest in college. In addition to pursuing higher education, he has vowed to pay forward the hand-up he received from an elderly man he met in jail who, recognizing the potential in his young cell mate, offered him some words of wisdom. “You are smart. You are young. Don’t come back here.”

Then there was the young mother with four children who found time to study and do her homework online at home after midnight. Ana Martinez’s teachers described her as “one of the most hardworking” students they have ever had at the Adult School. She was pregnant with her fourth child when she enrolled at the school. She carried the baby in her arm when she walked up to receive her diploma.

Everyone in the audience was smiling as she received her diploma, not just because they were happy for her but for the endearing picture of her shaking hands with school district officials while her three-year-old son followed suit close behind her and solemnly shook hands with the amused officials.

 Such stories of indomitable spirits are the norm and not the exception for many of the Manteca Adult School students, Principal Diane Medeiros noted in her speech during the graduation ceremony. She recalled one particular instance when she happened to meet one student in the school district restroom. The student was getting ready to go to her class. A quick conversation revealed to Medeiros that the young woman used public transportation go to school. The closest bus trop for her was at Walmart on South Main Street. From there, it’s a trek on foot through Mission Ridge, Union Road, then to Louise Avenue to the intersection at Airport Way to get to Manteca Adult School at the school district.

“It’s not how you start – it’s how you finish,” Manteca Unified counselor Larry Machado said, summing up his message to the Manteca Adult School Class of 2014.