By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
But it was not a lasting solution. The friend was a senior and, like almost all of the students at Furr, did not live in the immediate neighborhood. He didn't have transportation, and so Victor began missing a lot of classes.
Victor bounced around, finally moving in with another friend, but this was another senior without transportation, and the same pattern occurred. It wasn't until this year, when film teacher Assol Kavtorina saw Victor crying in the hallway and invited him to live with her family, that he's had a secure home and makes it to school regularly.
"I was always moving houses; getting to school was my biggest issue. That's why I had to take a lot of classes this year; I missed a lot of days the year before. I had the grades; I didn't get the credits," Victor says.
Kavtorina, who studied at the Moscow Film School and has taught at Furr the last two years, doesn't understand all the media fuss about taking in Victor to live with her family.
"I knew he's a normal, decent person. He wasn't a complete stranger, because I used to teach him. It's really not a big deal. In Russian villages, a stranger could knock on your door and you open the door and let the stranger in," she says.
Right after she made Victor the offer, she called her husband to tell him who'd be coming home.
"Really, for us it was not a big deal. I just put him in the guest bedroom. And an extra bowl of soup for dinner won't ruin anyone's budget."
"On the first day I was here, one gang member threw another one through a plate-glass window," Simmons recalls. It was the year 2000, five years after she'd retired in 1995, and the district wanted her to sort out the troubled Furr. "I walked out there; I was 65 years old. And I said, 'I must be a lunatic to be here,' because I knew nothing about gangs."
"Two weeks later, the thrower was killed in a Pleasantville drive-by shooting," Simmons says. "It was a retaliation."
The district asked Simmons three times to go to Furr before she accepted. In 1999, she'd lost a granddaughter in a skiing accident; the teen had been a sophomore at Bellaire High School and she'd always wanted "to make the world a better place for all people." Simmons decided she'd go to Furr and try to make the kind of difference her granddaughter talked about.
The first thing Simmons says she did was unload a number of teachers. "I had to get rid of a lot of teachers because I wanted us to be sure that all of us believed that our kids could succeed and would succeed if we support them and give them the instruction and the emotional support they needed."
But there continued to be problems, in large part caused by the number of gang members on the Furr campus. "We went into uniforms because we have 15 identified gangs on the campus," she says.
Things got worse before they got better. In 2003, Simmons stepped out of her car to find a riot going on among her then-1,400-member student body.
"Our assistant principals were going to send 42 kids to CEP. And I said, 'No, we're not going to do that anymore. I'm going to break that rule.' And I called the kids in to talk to them, and I'm going to see what I could do to change this. I was told by the district, 'Don't ever meet with gang members.'"
She asked them what it would take to bring peace to this school. The answer came out of left field.
"They did not believe that 9/11 had happened. This was in August of '03. They thought everybody was trying to fool them because they think they're poor and don't know better," Simmons says. They told her the only thing that could change their minds would be if the school could take them to Ground Zero.
Simmons struck a deal. A contract was signed that said if the campus was peaceful, there would be a trip the following June. And despite the central office's misgivings, it all worked out. Some important people heard about the effort, donations finally materialized, and Simmons and 32 gang members (ten chickened out) who'd never been on a plane before flew to New York City on Continental. They even took in a showing of 42nd Street on Broadway.
Nineteen-year-old Laura Rae first heard about Reach when she came to campus to enroll her 15-year-old brother at Furr. She found Furr by researching the Texas Education Agency Web site and decided it would be a safer place than North Forest.
She'd been all set to return to North Forest herself, but when she learned Reach had flexible hours and would help her recover her credits faster, she switched. She would have graduated last October, but was told if she took a year of a foreign language — she chose French — she could get a higher-level, recommended diploma. She graduated in December, but walked the stage this weekend.
Out on her own, Laura says her mother would help her when she could. "My mom, she would max out her credit cards to help me. She works overnight at Walmart 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., then drops my brother at school."
Laura worked as a cashier at Fiesta and also at a flea market on the weekend. "There would be times when there was not enough for food."
Asked why it was so important that she get an education, Laura says she was doing it to be a good role model for her brother. "We came from a family we have no college graduates, and as a Mexican-American, I wanted to show my brother that anything is possible."
She also knows the struggles her mother has had, limited by the fact that she speaks Spanish and little English. "She couldn't help me with my homework."
She is determined that her father's pronouncements don't all come true.
"My father, he used to tell us that we should just stay at home and just work, just work. That college is nothing. Of course he wouldn't know, because he didn't graduate from high school.
"My father used to tell me I'd end up getting pregnant and dropping out. I dropped out, but I feel he forced me to. I don't have any kids."
Texas A&M University makes special efforts to reach students like Laura and Victor, both to help its diversity goals and because of a belief that they will do well at the school, according to Shana Castillo, A&M financial aid counselor.
Victor told her flat out that he wanted to go to Rice University (he spent part of last summer at a nanotechnology course there). Castillo told him that was fine, but still checked back with him. When it came time to go through his application documents and financial paperwork, she helped him with all of it, he says.
"She helped me out a lot, and that's why I decided to go to A&M," he says.
"They explained to me I was going to have to get outside loans, and I was like, 'I can't do that. Who is going to be my co-signer?'"
When she sat down with Castillo, Laura says, "She asked me for my father's financial info, and I started crying, because I knew my father wasn't going to give it to me."
Castillo determined that Laura met the qualifications for homelessness — "I was living on my own during what was supposed to be my senior year" — and told her not to worry.
Castillo says it was clear to her that Victor, who already relied so much on the support system at his school, would be a good fit for A&M. "I could see that was the same type of family atmosphere that we have here at Texas A&M. It would be an easier transition for him to a school like ours."
She says that Laura, who is bright and has " a similar kind of dysfunctional family situation," was also what A&M looks for. "I could tell she had that spark; she had that drive; she was not going to let her situation hold her back."
"We kind of meddle a little in our students' lives," Castillo says. "We want to make sure they're being taken care of, because some of these students that we recruit, especially from the areas in town where a lot of colleges don't recruit, they don't give them the one-on-one time that these students need."
Laura recently moved back with her mother. "My mother fought with my dad, saying if he wants me to leave, he'd better leave. So he built his own little shack at the back of the house."
She says she's still at risk because of her mom's nighttime work hours. "If my dad's upset or drunk, he could decide to throw my stuff out." She says the last time her dad got angry with her, she decided just to ride it out. "Because I'm so close to leaving."
Victor has pretty much lost touch with most of his family. His mother came by in his sophomore year and tried to take him out of the school, but the principal and the nurse stepped in and that was the end of that, Victor says. He knows that one brother is in prison for murder and the other was just released after stabbing someone.
Instead of family, he relies on his friends and his school and says he'll continue to do that at A&M, where he plans to study microbiology and maybe film. He also hopes to get back into dance (contemporary and hip-hop) some day.
Laura plans to take biomedical and biochemistry courses with the hopes of being a pediatrician someday. "I never had insurance. I want to serve underserved children."
Both she and Victor talk about building better futures for their future kids. Laura is part of the group No More Victims and speaks at seminars and colleges about her experiences.
Victor says he felt like quitting a lot of times. "I always thought people had more things than I did. Not just materialwise but familywise." But he didn't because, well, the one thing he says he ever "affiliated with" was school.
He knows a lot of students who didn't succeed. "Students who don't make it — they get used to the same pain. They get stuck."
Furr worked for him because, he says, "It's a community. I don't think I would have chosen any other school to be at. They know the surroundings; they know the problems that we have."
Victor doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him. He advises that "you should always surround yourself with people who care for you. Friendships. That's what it comes down to."
Furr is not perfect; after years of quiet, MS13 showed up two years ago on campus and gang fights resumed. "But now it's peaceful," Simmons says. Test scores are up; the school may actually have some National Merit finalists by next year based on this year's scores, and Simmons is hoping for good news by July when the state releases its accreditation report.
They have tutorials during the school day instead of after school because their students are bused in; they try to figure out the learning style of each student and teach to that. Their building is far from new, but its courtyards and hallways are immaculate, the front desk welcoming, the students engaged.
They have a principal with principles and the power and authority to move mountains. We'd never have a chance to write about these two students if they'd gone to many of our schools. As sad as parts of their lives have been, for Laura and Victor, their school has been their lifeline.
Capture that magic, put it in a bottle and send it out to the world.