By Bernandina Rodriguez, 18, Fremont HS
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Writer graduated in 2005

At graduation, Bernandina posed for a photo with Mr. Kwong, the math teacher who helped her become more confident.

When I started at Fremont, the teachers told me I was going to have "Pathfinder Pride" and I didn’t believe them. To me it was just another school where I had to do what they told me and follow the rules. How could I feel pride when all I heard about Fremont was how bad it was and how the test scores kept going down?

Fremont, with its big gray fences and windows covered with metal and chicken wire, probably seems like a prison to outsiders. All they can see is that it’s in South Central in a crazy neighborhood where there are shootings, and it’s scary when you’re by yourself. So some might not understand why I felt happy at Fremont.

As valedictorian of the class of 2005, I prepared a speech about the educational opportunities that Fremont had given us—like AP classes, honors classes and night school. As I stood behind the podium speaking to my graduating class, many things went through my head. At first I was feeling nervous. Then another feeling took over. I thought about all the people who had made Fremont seem like a second home. I thought about my friends Hadasa, Andrea and Nelly, who I used to hang out with at lunch and nutrition. I thought about my math teacher Mr. Kwong who helped me change from a shy girl into a young lady who has a voice and is not afraid to give her opinion. I thought about all the people that I used to pass in the halls and say hi to, even if I didn’t know them. It was sad to be saying goodbye. I looked out at all the happy graduates in their burgundy caps and gowns, with their parents and their younger brothers and sisters. I felt so proud that, like me, they had made it through high school and most of them were going to college. I felt a lump in my throat from all the pride and sadness, but I didn’t want to cry on such a happy day.

We were all so happy

I ended my speech with something my computer teacher Mr. Gonzalez had told us: "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars." Suddenly to my surprise everyone was standing, cheering. I saw their happiness in the joyful faces, being there with their friends, knowing they would walk out with a diploma, and knowing they’re not part of the percentage that doesn’t make it. (Less than half from our class of about 1,000 graduated.) After we moved our tassels from one side of our caps to the other, meaning high school was over, we were supposed to form two lines and neatly leave the football field. Instead we threw our hats up and ran all over. There were hugs, crying, balloons, parents looking for their kids, teachers taking pictures with their students, and Fremont alumni from years ago who came to see the graduation.

With everyone greeting me and taking pictures, it took me 10 minutes just to walk over to where my parents were by the Fremont fountain, which is one of my favorite places at the school. Four years ago the fountain was dirty and didn’t work, but now that it has been restored the sound of the splashing water brings a feeling of peace to the Fremont courtyard. As we celebrated by the fountain it was an unforgettable day.

A few weeks after graduation, I got to take my little sister, Elena, on a quick tour on her first day of school. Walking through the hallways, I remembered how I got lost my first day. I felt the things I felt every morning at Fremont—the happiness, just being there, knowing that’s where you belong, that’s your school.

Coming from Edison Middle School, as I did, I knew that Elena would be prepared for some of the worst things at Fremont—the fights, students not caring, interruptions during class, the unfairness of the way we’re treated, the way people look at you when you tell them that you come from a public school in South Central.

As we walked through the hallways I pointed out key offices and rooms: the college center, main office, the counseling office. I showed her the unmarked door which is the only way to get to classrooms 520 through 525 back by the "Agricultural Area." No one calls it an Agricultural Area, they call it "The Garden," but it is actually a wilderness with mainly weeds, banana plants and dirt. As we walked by, my sister asked me "Is that the garden?" What could I say?

"When you go to nutrition and lunch, try to get there early," I told her. The line gets so long that it could reach Rome. You could wait up to 15 minutes just to get a meal, and nutrition is only 20 minutes long. Your choices are cheeseburgers, pizza or burritos. "It would be a good idea if you were to bring your own lunch," I told her but I knew that she would rather starve than make her own lunch. My sister carefully plans what she’s going to wear, but she doesn’t care about food.

My older sisters and I all did well at Fremont. Guadalupe attends UCLA, Maura is at Cerritos College, and I’m enrolled at Cal State Long Beach. We hope that Elena can get the most out of Fremont, too.

Good teachers are the key

Getting good teachers, I explained, was the most important thing. Some teachers don’t care if you learn. Some will give you the answers as you’re taking the quiz. Some are absent three times a week. In 10th grade, my world history teacher suddenly left and my class had six or seven substitutes for the rest of the year. We covered the Great Depression, World War I and World War II. All the substitutes seemed to know those three subjects very well, but what about the rest of history? Every time one of the students asked when we were going to learn something new, they would tell us that the next substitute would teach us the new stuff, but they lied.

The way to get the best teachers is to take honors and AP classes. AP stands for Advanced Placement. It means that you will practically be doing college-level work and you get to learn more. But as I told Elena these things, I had the feeling that she wasn’t listening. I like to read and study, but she’d rather watch TV or lay around and listen to music.

I explained Fremont’s so-called "No Pass Policy," which is intended to have fewer interruptions during class so we can learn more. No passes are to be issued during class time for any reason, not even to go to the bathroom. Some teachers follow the policy to the letter, but others understand that when "nature calls" you must go.

But the only bathrooms open for the 3,500 students are two for girls and two for boys on the first floor of the main building. There are also two small bathrooms in the library. "What?!" my sister said. The bathrooms can become really crowded with up to 25 grumpy girls waiting during nutrition and lunch. You can try to go during passing periods, which are about six minutes, but if your classroom is far away, you can’t make it.

This leads to being tardy and not being allowed into class. Then you have three options: 1) hide from the security guards during the tardy sweep; 2) go to the tardy room; or 3) beg the teacher to let you in. Some teachers are nice and others would not let their own mothers in. In the tardy room all the students do is sit around and talk. What a waste of time. I advised Elena to get a pass with her name, teacher’s name and time, even if she thinks she is not going to need one, each time she ever has to go somewhere in the building.

Finding a way

But you can get into the locked bathrooms on the second and third floors. Only the entrance doors are locked. You just have to stick your fingers in the square holes in the exit door and pull. This secret saved me on many occasions.

As we continued to walk I pointed out the only two computer labs that are accessible during nutrition and lunch, and the many that are not. This is because only two of them are official computer labs and the rest are classrooms. These two labs are on the third floor and to get there you MUST have a pass.

I introduced Elena to Mr. Gonzalez, my 11th grade computer teacher. I knew he would take her under his wing, as he had with me. He showed me his class roster. Elena and I were surprised as he kept turning the pages—approximately 65 students for just one class. I pictured all those kids packed like sardines into his lab, which has only 32 computers.

I left Elena there by the library, looking for some of her friends. Some people might wonder why I want her to go to Fremont, seeing all the problems at school. But these are just obstacles you have to go through in getting your education. I know that Elena will be OK; she’ll learn and grow at Fremont just as I did.

Tips for thriving  in high school

Even if you go to a high school that’s not the best,you can get a good education. Here are some tips that helped me succeed at Fremont.

1. Make friends with adults, not just classmates.
This gave me more opportunities, like when I was in a math class that was too easy for me and my counselor would not let me transfer. Several teachers helped me switch into a more demanding class.

It also gave me an inside view of Fremont. I understood why the teachers were frustrated and tired; why so many were frequently absent or left the school altogether. One of the many problems was that they had no support from the administration and did not agree with some of the decisions made by the administration and other teachers.

Another problem that made the teachers’ jobs harder was that some students had been allowed to progress from one grade to the next even though they really didn’t have the skills they needed. One teacher told me he had two 11th grade students who couldn’t recite the alphabet. When I was a math tutor, I saw that some of my classmates could not multiply or divide.

2. Try to follow the rules, but do what you have to do to get an education.
Usually I would get a pass to go to the computer lab. But there was one occasion when I did not have a pass and so I snuck past the security guard to the third floor.

3. Give people a chance before you judge them.
Although I had been warned to stay away from gang members, I got to know a gangster in my algebra class who turned out to be one of the nicest and kindest people I’ve met. I also volunteered in the library where I was surprised at how many of my classmates came and went with a book in their hands. They really loved the love stories and mysteries.

4. My final piece of advice is Fremont’s motto, "Find a path or make one."
Find your destiny. When I started to attend Fremont my plan was to join the Air Force, or become a teacher or a police officer. But my math and technology classes helped me discover a new career path to becoming a computer engineer.