24 years ago, on the first day of school, hundreds of awkward freshmen were ushered into the sweltering auditorium at Huntington Park High School for a formal welcome from the school’s administrators. I’m sure they each took turns introducing themselves and laying out expectations. There was probably a performance by the marching band and color guard. These details are fuzzy, but I vividly remember the principal’s message.
Maybe Mr. Garcia was of a different generation. Maybe he understood it as the only way to inspire young minds. But, what he said that day to a bunch of poor, first-generation kids who already had the odds stacked against them, was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“Look at the person next to you,” Mr. Garcia told us. “One of you won’t be here in four years.” Heads spun around to quickly size up our neighbors and determine who was going down like an academic Hunger Games. Sadly, his prediction wasn’t an opinion; it was based on fact.
In the mid 1990s, the dropout rate in the Los Angeles School District was a dismal 44% with, as the Los Angeles Times reported in June 1995, “nearly one in every two high school students leaving (the District) before graduation day.” Those of us who had, by some stroke of luck and fate, been tracked into the enriched courses and had enjoyed enough reassurance from our parents and teachers up until then, were taken aback by the prediction but maintained some confidence that we would end up on the positive side of that outcome. But, we were a small group among a freshman population of more than 1,000. How did the rest of our classmates react? How many of them recalled every demoralizing comment in that moment and, having looked at their neighbor, determined that they weren’t going to make it so they might as well not try?
It’s unlikely that the direct impact of Mr. Garcia’s words can be accurately measured. But, his prediction was correct. In June 1998, approximately 500 Huntington Park High School seniors crossed the stage and received diplomas. A handful more would complete their high school education through the GED program. A percentage of us would, at our own pace, go on to complete undergraduate studies. Regardless of our academic achievements, I am confident that the majority of awkward kids who were subjected to that pessimistic message 24 years ago have defined success for themselves and are leading lives that have surpassed everything their humble parents could have imagined.
As a new school year kicks off, I hope principals and educators tasked with welcoming a new class of awkward freshmen choose to inspire them with positivity and optimism while laying out all the reasons why they can, they must, and they will cross that stage in 2021.