Lost and found

Poor, brown, and inner-city. These Adamson High School kids weren't supposed to make it. They did anyway.

I asked him whether he was serious about getting ahead because he wanted to please his mother.

"Yes," he said without hesitating. "So she can be proud for me. I am the only one in my whole generation to finish high school. When I call back to Mexico, they are all proud for me."

At one point Herrera's grades at Northwood dipped below the level required to maintain an Adamson Foundation scholarship. By asking him questions, the board of the foundation learned that Herrera's car had broken down, and for a period of almost an entire semester he had been unable to afford to fix it. During that time, he rode a bicycle to school, a distance of 15 miles one way, while running cross-country, attending school, and working more than 30 hours a week at an Auto Zone store. The foundation gave him a dispensation; his scholarship was renewed; he got the car fixed; his grades went back up.

I survived Adamson High School: from left, Armando Monsivais, Sonia Cabrales, and Manuel Herrera
Mark Graham
I survived Adamson High School: from left, Armando Monsivais, Sonia Cabrales, and Manuel Herrera
I survived Adamson High School: Sonia Cabrales
Mark Graham
I survived Adamson High School: Sonia Cabrales

Herrera's memories of Adamson are not all wonderful. I asked him what he would change if he could wave a magic wand.

"I would be more strict on the teachers. Some of them just teach the TAAS [the legally mandated state achievement test]. That's all they teach about, TAAS TAAS TAAS. It's so boring; that's the one thing that might have made me quit."

The Adamson teacher who had agreed to meet me for lunch if I didn't publish his name told me the same thing. "We are forced to teach them these little bits of packaged information that have no relevance to the world. It's really a terrible way to educate someone."

But Herrera also remembers the few people at Adamson and at the foundation who really did care what happened to him. "My cross-country coach, Mr. Urbino, he bought me shoes to run, because he believed I could go to college. I didn't have money to buy running shoes. He bought them for me. He bought me a lot of shoes. I wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for him."

Roberto Urbino, the distance coach at Adamson, played down the shoe business at first when I called him.

"Kids' shoes didn't cost that much then. I wasn't married. It was worth it."

But the more Urbino talked about Herrera, the clearer it was that Urbino is keeping close tabs on him through the coach at Northwood, waiting for Herrera to graduate next year as if waiting for him to break the tape at a state meet.

"Manuel is the type of guy I would do anything for," Urbino said. "He's just that quality of young man."

When he was in high school, Herrera had dreamed of running in the Olympics. Now that he has family responsibilities of his own, his dream has changed.

"I am going to be a regional manager for Auto Zone by the age of 25," he told me. "I am going to make money. And I am going to give money to the Adamson Foundation."

The teachers

Coach Urbino's influence on Herrera is an element of the story that is common to all of these young people -- the one adult who opened up the world for them. The almost magical role played by a few key adults in the lives of these young people gives the lie to the story that these are all screwed-up kids from screwed-up backgrounds who can't be taught.

I think I know a hot classroom when I see one, and I hope it won't get Delia Everman in trouble if I mention hers. She has been teaching Spanish at Adamson for 20 years, all of them in the very same room. I watched -- an unidentified stranger peering in at her door -- and I saw her teaching with the gusto and intensity of a fresh young teacher who can't believe her luck at having the job.

I hope I can safely quote Peggy Henson -- the biology teacher who inspired Lydia Davila -- because she has moved on to another school. She told me that teaching in inner-city schools, finding the Lydia Davilas and getting them on to college, is so exciting for her and so intensely rewarding that she can't stand the thought of ever doing anything else.

"My life dream," she said, "is to have a student at every college and university in Texas."

Maybe this is the real question: Why shouldn't that be the city's life dream for all of its children?

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