By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
When he was four, his father walked out, overwhelmed by the debt and discord in their home.
When he was 14, his mother threw him out, stabbed him in the face with a knife, told him if he ever came back she would kill him. He began sleeping on park benches.
In the years between, his older and younger brothers got involved in gangs, came home high on drugs, fought and stabbed each other, resulting in trips to the hospital and jail. They finally started beating their mom, who'd been pounding on them for years.
Victor Cardenas, a homeless wanderer for much of his high school career, graduated this past Memorial Day weekend the valedictorian of his class at Furr High School, with a perfect 4.0 out of 4.0 average. He's the first person in his family to get past the tenth grade.
Through all of the hard times, he kept coming to class. Furr High School personnel and his friends stepped in and helped him hold on.
It is an amazing story, a true triumph of determination over circumstance, as appalling in its details as it is uplifting in its final chapter.
But, both fortunately and unfortunately, it is not unique.
When Laura Rae was six or seven, she was molested several times by a cousin. It didn't stop till her cousin's brother found out about it. When she was 15, another cousin, to whom she'd confided the earlier molestation, molested her as well.
When her father found out, he called Rae "a female dog." In her senior year at Smiley High (now merged with North Forest), her father threw her out of the house.
Although she'd always gotten good grades and was ranked 14th in her class, Rae couldn't figure out a way to keep things going. She shared an apartment with a friend and had to come up with her portion of the rent money. An online program through a private home schooling business didn't work out for her. So she was officially a dropout.
Rae also gave a valedictorian address this past weekend. She's part of the class of about 100 students attending HISD's internal charter school Reach High, also on the Furr campus — a school designed for dropouts trying to get their diplomas.
Both students will be going to Texas A&M this fall, substantially endowed with scholarships, and the College Station school should be commended for its outreach efforts, which take it into schools that a lot of colleges and universities wouldn't touch.
But A&M and other schools wouldn't have had a chance to look at either of these kids if it hadn't been for the teachers and staff at Furr, handpicked and presided over by the irrepressible Bertie Simmons.
Simmons, a 76-year-old former district superintendent brought out of retirement to head up the East Side high school, has succeeded (the school achieved "recognized" status in 2009) where other schools and their leaders have failed. And she's done it not by being a stern martinet, but through "positive reinforcement."
"We say we have an invitational school. We want everybody who comes to this school to feel comfortable. We have so many who are homeless. We do everything we can to help the students."
In the Cardenas house there was always trouble. "My mom kind of had a drinking problem, and my brothers kind of had a drug problem, and they were in the Little Red and Denver Harbor gangs. The situation kind of turned bad," says Cardenas, who'll be 17 this summer.
His mother developed cancer when he was 12. She was unhappy about his father leaving and didn't stay around the house much herself. In a documentary Victor did last year called Just Being Victor, he talks about the abuse and unhappiness and his brothers, now 18 and 15.
"It got to the point where each of us was arrested by the cops or was taken to the hospital," Victor says. "Whenever they would fight, they stabbed each other. It got even worse, and each day my brothers would hit my mom."
One day, upset that one of his brothers hadn't been home for days, Victor's mother got in an argument with him, and she stabbed him near one of his eyes. "She told me, 'If you ever come back to this house, I'll kill you.'"
He went to school that day crying, and teachers and friends tried to find out what was wrong, but he didn't tell them. He decided not to go home that night and began sleeping on benches in Denver Harbor Park. He kept going to school because a) he liked it and b) he didn't know what else to do with his days.
Eventually he told the school nurse, Kellie Vorberg, what had happened, and Children's Protective Services was called in.
"They opened a CPS case. They told me they were going to take me out of the school 'cause my brothers were gang leaders. I didn't want to leave the school. I had done well in all my tests," Victor says. But Simmons and Vorberg called down one of his friends from class and asked if he could stay with his family. The house was small and accommodations were tight, but it worked. "CPS kind of dropped the case," Victor says.