By Patricia Chavarria, 18, Cesar Chavez Continuation HS (Compton)
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Patricia says that education is important for your future, so don't give up, even when school gets tough.

Growing up my parents would tell me almost every week how important my education was. They would tell me not to end up like them—waking up early for work and coming home late just to get paid a low salary for a job you don’t like. So I studied hard and got good grades.

But beginning in middle school I started to lose interest in school and my grades got worse. A lot of my classmates said that you couldn’t be held back, so I didn’t try my hardest. I didn’t bring my books to math class, because I liked talking to my friends rather than doing equations and fractions.

When my mom saw my report cards she would ask why I hadn’t turned in homework. I told her that I would try harder, but I didn’t. She would ground me for a week or two and take away my television and phone privileges.

After seventh grade I had to take summer school because I was behind. Throughout eighth grade I tried my hardest so that I could graduate with my class. It was difficult, but I did it. My mom was so proud that she took me out to dinner and kept telling me how she knew I wasn’t going to let her down.

Freshman year at Compton High was a new start. I realized that every mistake would be counted against me graduating. I tried to always be the first one to turn in class work and while other people chatted about who they liked, I kept my head in my books.

But algebra was my weakness. In class I would look at the board and see all these numbers, letters and symbols and regret not taking math seriously in middle school. It was irritating trying to do my homework when I didn’t understand it, so I copied a friend’s homework.

I knew that I should have gotten help from a teacher, but I was so fed up with math that I chose hanging out with my friends instead of trying to learn it. I also knew that I needed to understand math to pass the state exit exam (CAHSEE), which I needed to graduate. But since I wouldn’t be taking the exam until sophomore year and could take it again as a junior or senior, I didn’t worry.

By sophomore year I was a well-behaved, A student, except for math. I had a C, but my teacher gave me that grade only because he saw me trying. I deserved a D. My mom wanted to know why I had a C, so I explained how I had problems understanding math. She said that I should ask the teacher for help.

But one morning in mid-November I woke up feeling more tired than ever, because I had stayed up late watching Smallville with my older brother. Not going to school and pretending to understand what the math teacher was saying sounded great. I knew I could fool my mom, who drove my sister to school and then went straight to work. I thought that if I stayed home for one day it wouldn’t hurt me.

I worried about getting caught

My mom knocked on my door and said she was leaving. I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t. I kept worrying that my mom would come home at any minute because she forgot something. Since I couldn’t sleep, I cleaned the house a little and watched TV. At 2:20 p.m. I walked to my sister’s school and picked her up, like I did every day. My brother came home from work around 5 p.m. and then my mom at 6. She asked me how school was. I lied and told her school was great.

The next day I felt the urge to ditch again. I wasn’t in the mood to take notes about things that weren’t going to help me fulfill my dream of becoming an actress. I watched Maury, Smallville, Scrubs and my favorite movie, The Phantom of the Opera.

By January I had missed about 40 days in a row. Every day my mom asked me how school was and if I had homework. I would lie and tell her school was fine. And every night I listened to music in my room, while my mom thought I was studying. It was unbelievable to me that no one had found out. Some of my friends called me to see if I was OK. I was nervous. I didn’t want them to know the truth because they would probably tell the principal or call my mom. I told them I was out of town and didn’t know when I would be back. But then I felt guilty because I was lying to my best friends.

I visited my dad’s family on weekends and they would tell me how proud they were of me for trying to learn math. This made me feel even guiltier. I knew school was important because I needed to graduate to have a chance at a better future.

One day in late January I saw that the school had sent a letter to my parents. I was terrified. I opened the letter, which said that I hadn’t been going to school and that the counselor needed to speak to my parents in person to talk about my absences. I hid the letter in my dresser. I knew my mom would be furious. I was filled with guilt and regret. At dinner I wanted to tell my mom. My mouth would open, but the words wouldn’t come out.

I told my mom the truth about my ditching

I skipped school the next day and thought about what I was going to do. I couldn’t go back to school without a parent coming with me to talk to my counselor. I decided to tell my mom everything because I couldn’t live with the lies anymore. That afternoon while I waited for her to get home I was trembling. We sat down and I told her that I had been ditching school for more than two months because school was stressing me out with all the exams, grades and homework. My mom yelled at me and told me that school was important for my future. She told me that she only wants me to do better than her. She was so disappointed in me that she cried. Seeing that, I knew I had failed her.

The next day was Saturday and I woke up feeling really sick. I had a sharp pain at the bottom of my spine, like I was being stabbed. My mom took me to the hospital. The doctor said I had an infection and gave me four shots. The doctor prescribed painkillers and said I couldn’t go to school because I couldn’t sit. He wasn’t sure how long it would take to heal, but that I couldn’t go back to school until it didn’t hurt anymore. While home recovering I was required to lie on my stomach all the time. Now I was missing school for a legitimate reason. My mom even missed work to take care of me.

Around March I finally felt better. My mom and I talked to my counselor, who said that I couldn’t stay at Compton High because I didn’t have enough credits. I wasn’t surprised. I knew there was a limit to how many days a student could miss. It was my fault. I kept asking myself: “When did I became so irresponsible? Why didn’t I care?” I thought about how I wouldn’t see my friends anymore or graduate with them. I thought of all the colleges that had just slipped out of my hands.

The school district told me that I had to go to Cesar Chavez Continuation High School. I had heard about that school from some of my friends and I also had a cousin who attended Chavez. They said that all the bad kids went there and that there were always fights. I asked the lady from the district if there was another school I could go to, but she said that was the only school that would accept me. She told me if I earned enough credits I could return to Compton High and graduate with my class. Hearing this made me feel great. I was determined to do my best.

A fresh start at a new school

Patricia with her favorite teacher, Mr. Mills, who teaches English.

Starting at Chavez I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone. But the students were not as scary as people had said. I didn’t make friends, which was OK because that gave me time to focus on school.

There were two school sessions; my classes didn’t begin until 12:15 p.m. I had English, history, algebra II and biology. One question kept running through my head: “What if I struggle even more in math and I give up again?” This time I promised myself I would ask the teacher for help if I had trouble.

There were about 10 students in each class, so the teacher had time to help any student who was behind. My math teacher would sit with me and go through graphing, solving equations and other problems I needed help with. At Compton High where there were about 30 students in a class, the teacher wouldn’t have had time to do that.

Despite the fact that there were some fights and ditching at Chavez, I thought school was going well. I even made some friends. I had great teachers and  good grades—even in math. But one Sunday morning in February of junior year I started to feel that same sharp pain in my spine. My mom took me to the hospital. I was so scared. The doctor said I needed surgery. She said they needed to make a hole in my lower back and put tubes in it because the infection went even deeper than before. After surgery I had to stay home on my stomach all day for two months. I mostly slept because of the pain or watched TV. I missed three months of school and I knew I wouldn’t be returning to Compton High. There were only a few weeks left in the school year so my mom and I decided I should start fresh beginning with senior year.

I was so behind that my counselor put me in both morning and afternoon sessions at Chavez. I went to school from 8:30 a.m. until 3:21 p.m. and I took four classes in each session. In March, I also started a program in which I took two other classes that I needed to make up. These classes were self-paced and taught on the computers at school. Each class went from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Taking all these classes was a challenge. After dinner, I had to help my sister with her homework while doing mine because my mom worked late. Then I would spend a few hours doing my homework, usually staying up until about midnight. My desire to graduate kept me motivated.

My life hasn’t been what I imagined back when I was a freshman. I thought that when I was a senior I’d be hanging out with friends, going to prom and preparing for UCLA or USC. But now I don’t see my old Compton High friends very often, I couldn’t go to prom because I didn’t have enough credits and I’m still at Chavez because I was so behind that I couldn’t graduate on time. I’m angry with myself for listening to the devil on my shoulder that told me to ditch. But I am thankful for Chavez—a school where students like me, who ditched and regret it, get another chance.

Click here to read a roundtable discussion among five students about how attending Cesar Chavez Continuation High School saved their academic careers.