Lost and found

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

Sonia

Even when her bags were already packed in her friend Anthony's car in the driveway, her parents continued to beg her not to make this terrible mistake. But she was stubborn and determined. Her mother cried, but she refused to change her mind. Finally her mother stepped forward, exhausted and in defeat, and slowly made the sign of the cross over her in a last bendicion.

No matter how her parents pleaded or cried, Sonia Cabrales was going to the University of Texas in Austin.

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
Glenn Straus calls the Adamson Foundation "about the most rewarding thing I've ever gotten involved in."
Mark Graham
Glenn Straus calls the Adamson Foundation "about the most rewarding thing I've ever gotten involved in."
Anthony Grimes started seeking success as a little boy because of the look it put on his mother's face.
John Anderson
Anthony Grimes started seeking success as a little boy because of the look it put on his mother's face.
Lydia Davila invented her own study technique to catch up with the kids who come to UT from privileged backgrounds.
John Anderson
Lydia Davila invented her own study technique to catch up with the kids who come to UT from privileged backgrounds.
I survived Adamson High School: Manuel Herrera
Mark Graham
I survived Adamson High School: Manuel Herrera
I survived Adamson High School: Armando Monsivais
Mark Graham
I survived Adamson High School: Armando Monsivais
One of the oldest and smallest high schools in Dallas, Adamson has become a meeting ground for today's minority students and the white alumni of yesteryear.
Mark Graham
One of the oldest and smallest high schools in Dallas, Adamson has become a meeting ground for today's minority students and the white alumni of yesteryear.

The previous spring, Cabrales' class of 1994 at W.H. Adamson High School in North Oak Cliff had produced 165 graduates -- all that was left of more than 600 freshmen with whom she had started.

The school district tends to be blasé on the surface and very defensive when pressed for details about the dropout rate at Adamson and some of its other high schools. The only reaction Superintendent Waldemar Rojas and his spokesman Tomas Roman had when I told them I was doing a story on Adamson was to try unsuccessfully to keep me out of the school.

I'm sure they see Adamson as a major public relations liability. It's a poor school in one of the least assimilated immigrant areas of the city. It teeters along in one of the oldest buildings in the district, built in 1915, with one electrical outlet per classroom and an ancient boarded-up wood shop where the computer lab is supposed to be.

Adamson's senior-year test scores tend to be miserable: The portion of the senior class who passed the end-of-course test in Algebra I last year, for example, was 2.9 percent, up from 1.8 percent the previous year.

On the other hand, the school was spotlessly clean the day I slipped in, unannounced and unidentified. The corridors were orderly. I saw a few classrooms where students seemed truly rapt and even enthralled by what their teachers were telling them. The principal of the school was everywhere, tending to the most minute details of the school's daily life like the dedicated captain of an aging but proud ship.

One of the few local elected officials who has taken Adamson to heart is state Rep. Domingo Garcia, Democrat of Oak Cliff, who speaks with anger about the contrast between promise and reality at Adamson.

"There are code words that we hear from teachers and administrators," Garcia says. "They talk about children who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and children with severe social problems.

"What they really mean is that these kids are too poor, too dumb, and too dark to learn."

This story is an account of a handful of kids from this down-at-the-heels old school in a poor, often tough part of town who have made it anyway, who finished high school and went on to college.

The question is why? Why did Sonia Cabrales get herself down to Austin and enroll in classes at one of the most rigorous state universities in the nation, when all the odds were against her?

Cabrales and I met and sat at a little table in the underground level of the plaza at the Bank of America building downtown. A fountain gurgled nearby, and men and women in suits walked by briskly with briefcases. She told me that her father had pleaded with her not to go to Austin and her mother had cried because, for them, seeing their daughter go off by herself to an American university in another city was like seeing her fly to the moon.

No official count was kept of those from Adamson who went on to college in 1994, but of the 165 who graduated with her, Sonia Cabrales probably was one of fewer than half a dozen. That estimate comes from faculty members who would speak to me only off the record because they fear reprisals from the superintendent's office if they talk to reporters.

The school was 84 percent Hispanic when Cabrales left. It's more than 90 percent Hispanic now. Two-thirds of the students were "economically disadvantaged" then. Two-thirds are poor now.

The families who send children to Adamson are mainly immigrants from Mexico, most of them from a region in central Mexico beginning in the State of Guanajuato, just above Mexico City, and stretching north to Zacatecas, 300 miles south of Brownsville. It's a world in which children leave elementary school to work in the fields, a place where some people starve.

Since the early days of the Bracero program, a federal initiative designed to bring legal temporary labor up from Mexico after World War II, people have been coming from that part of Mexico to North Oak Cliff -- long enough to have transformed whole neighborhoods into little pockets of central Mexico. An Adamson teacher who had a not-for-attribution lunch with me said, "You'd think traveling to Mexico to visit their relatives, these kids have seen two different worlds, but they haven't. It's the same world there as in North Oak Cliff."

Cabrales' family history is probably typical of most of the students at Adamson.

"My parents are originally from Durango," she said. "They live there now. They came to the United States 25 years ago. I'm 24 years old. They had seven kids total, all raised here. Four of us are Adamson graduates. I'm the only one who actually went to a university.

"My parents are only Spanish-speaking. My mom worked on a production line. My father worked for a rubber company. They never became citizens of the United States, but they did become legal residents.

"I've lived in Oak Cliff since I was five, in the same small house where I live now. All of my family lives in Oak Cliff, except my parents. My dad is 59. My mom is 58. They moved back to Mexico because they weren't really succeeding with the American dream. They were working too hard and not going anywhere. My dad is a farmer now. He has land, and they live off it."

When she talks, she looks around every once in a while at the people walking by in the bank plaza with briefcases. Some of her story is sad, but her voice is never sad. Her eyes are always sure and direct. She's smart, funny, and confident.

"My parents are very, very old-fashioned. They felt I was really wasting my time going to a university. They just didn't believe it could be done. They said I was never going to succeed. They said I would never make it. It was just something they couldn't imagine. They thought I was never going to graduate.

"They said to me, 'Why are you wasting your time going to school, when you can start working now and make money?'"

The amount of money she was told it would cost her to complete a bachelor's degree at UT was heart-stopping. "It was $50,000 total," she said. In fact, the cost was so frightening that she didn't really make up her mind to go until the very last minute.

She had already been accepted into the university. She had received a $10,000 scholarship from a group called the Adamson Foundation, which has an endowment fund dating back to the old Anglo days of Oak Cliff in the 1940s. A man from the Adamson Foundation, Joe Rymal, had called her and invited her to lunch. Rymal and his wife told her to call them if she needed anything. But she still didn't get up the nerve to go to Austin until the very last moment. When she did finally throw her bags in her friend's car and head off to UT, she had made no arrangements at all in advance. She had no idea what to expect.

"I had never visited the university. I just went. I took my chances and just took off."

She pauses, and for the first time there is a tiny crack in her confident veneer. "I remember...I can still see my mom's face.

"I got to Austin, and I had no clue where I was going to live. We didn't even know where the exit was for Austin. We passed it, and we had to drive back. I looked for the housing center for the university. I told them I needed a dorm room. They said I was on a waiting list of 1,011 girls who needed rooms."

That number rolls straight off her tongue: 1,011 girls needed rooms. With her, that made 1,012.

"They said they would house me for a couple days. They housed me in the basement of a dorm. There were 25 or so beds down there, but no one else was in the basement. I was down there alone. I was really scared. I remember the first night crying, thinking, 'What did I do? Why did I leave my home?' I was so scared. The next day I called Joe Rymal."

The Adamson Foundation was launched in 1940 when Elizabeth Baker, a drama teacher at the school, contributed $200 for a scholarship fund. The endowment grew modestly through the 1950s and '60s, when Oak Cliff was a middle-class white area, but the fund has been blessed in recent years by a generous stock market and clever management. It now stands at almost a million dollars and gives out both four-year and one-year scholarships to Adamson graduates -- a process that has forged a bond between some of the old white graduates and the poor and minority kids who attend the school today.

Rymal, a 1969 Adamson graduate who is now a banker in the Washington, D.C., area, was working in Austin at the time at a high post in the agency that used to manage the University of Texas endowment. When I reached him by phone, he said he didn't remember all the details of Sonia Cabrales' plight, but he did remember flying into high gear when he realized the Adamson kid he was supposed to be mentoring was crying herself to sleep at night alone in a dormitory basement.

"You know, I don't really remember who all I called," Rymal said, "but when something like that happens, you tend to cast a broad net and hope somebody somewhere along the line will do you some good."

"The very next day," Cabrales told me, "I had a dorm room."

Cabrales paused before telling me the next piece of news.

"My roommate's name," she said, looking at me carefully to see if I would appreciate the significance, "was Kimberly."

I nodded. No last name necessary. Kimberly says it all.

"She was from Carrollton. Her parents were well-off. We were from completely different backgrounds. We just stared at each other. We had absolutely nothing to say to each other."

Cabrales said that she and Kimberly eventually got along. She told me that much of the challenge of her social experience in the first year had to do with overcoming her own biases.

"I learned to tolerate," she said. "I learned to accept people who weren't like me."

Her academic challenges were more difficult.

"My very first class on my first day was a history class. It turned out to be in an auditorium. I was shocked. I got there early and sat in the very back row. Then, while I'm sitting there, hundreds of kids walk in, and the auditorium fills up. Then the professor walks in way down there, and he's got a microphone and an overhead projector. He starts talking on and on.

"I remember being in shock. I was speechless. These kids started raising their hands and saying things. These were very bright kids. They made comments and used words I had never even heard of.

"After that class, I was thinking, 'Am I really going to make it? Maybe my parents were right.'

"Every class turned out to be that way. I studied really hard, a lot harder than I thought I would have to. The amount of studying was really something."

She stopped talking and waited for me to ask.

"So?" I asked. "How'd you do?"

Big smile.

"I got a 3.O. Not bad for a kid from Adamson, eh? I did good."

She graduated in four years with a degree in finance. The Adamson Foundation, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and other benefactors paid all but $8,000 of what it cost her to finish school. She is living in the small house in Oak Cliff where she grew up while she pays off her student loans.

Bank of America, where I met her in the underground plaza, hired her right out of college. She's on a competitive track to become a financial analyst for the bank.

I asked her about Adamson.

"Adamson is a great school to be at, because they have the Adamson Foundation scholarships, and they have teachers who care. There are mentors who are willing to help.

"But I remember coming into my dorm room, and I was mad and upset at Adamson. I wondered why they didn't prepare me better for the university. We could have had some field trips, you know. It wasn't until I went outside the city that I saw how much there is out there."

I asked her this: Of all the kids you went to high school with, given all the hurdles you had to get over, why did you make it?

She thought about that one for a while. "My parents were blue-collar workers, and they left this country thinking they had failed at the American dream. I didn't want that for my family."

Then she looked around again at the people walking by, and her face lit up. "When I was a little girl, my mom used to take me to this store downtown called H.L. Green. We passed by the plaza here, and I saw all these people in business suits with briefcases walking by. And I remember looking at them and thinking, 'That's what I want to be when I grow up.'"

I looked around the plaza, and I suddenly understood why she was so happy. She and I were sitting in the center of Sonia Cabrales' childhood dream come true.

Anthony

The friend who drove Sonia Cabrales to Austin for her first day at UT was Anthony Grimes, also an Adamson graduate in the class of 1994. Grimes was valedictorian. Cabrales was salutatorian. Years before, they had dated. By the time they started college together, they were competitive friends.

Grimes, who is still at UT, received the other of the two four-year scholarships awarded that year by the Adamson Foundation. He and I talked on the phone.

"We lived in an apartment off Davis Street," he said. "I don't know my father. My mom is manic-depressive. Anytime she gets on her feet and gets a good job, then she gets sick and has to go in the hospital, and of course when she gets out, the job is gone.

"I've pretty much always been a good student. In elementary school, I always did well on tests, especially the ITBS. It pleased my mom, and that always made me happy. I just liked the look she would give me."

Before Grimes got to Adamson, he had to deal with some of the worst of what state Rep. Garcia complains about at DISD -- indifferent teachers and advisors who apparently don't care whether a student drops out.

"I took a bunch of honors classes in the 8th grade. When I went to Sunset High School the first day, they told me I had to take all the same classes again that I took in 8th grade. They said I was a freshman, and that's what I had to take. When I said I already took them last year, the counselors said, 'Well, it'll be easy for you this year.' I couldn't see that. The reason I took the classes was to get ahead.

"I had some friends from my neighborhood who were at Adamson, and they told me it was smaller and there were some good teachers who cared about you. So that sounded good to me. I transferred over there after four days at Sunset."

His career at Adamson was a major success. But like Cabrales' mother, Grimes' mother did not want him to go off to the university at Austin.

"My mom wanted me to stay in Dallas and live with her, maybe go to UTA or something. She didn't want to let me go. That's part of the reason I did go to Austin. I love my mother very much, but I felt it was time for me to go out and experience the world. The longer I stayed at home, the harder it would be for her to let me go."

Grimes told me that the academic load at UT was tough, but he was well-served by study habits he had developed in high school.

"In high school, rarely did I ever take a book home, because I always finished my homework first so I could play later. I did the same thing here. I always did the work first. We would sit up in the dorm until 2 a.m. and talk about everything, every night, but a lot of times it was 2 in the morning and my friends hadn't done their work yet. I always did mine before I talked."

I had lunch at the Steak and Ale on LBJ at Skillman with Glenn Straus, Grimes' mentor from the Adamson Foundation. The restaurant is a few blocks from Straus' business, a high-end commercial real estate appraisal firm that operates all over the nation. Straus has been an active member of the Adamson Foundation for some years. Last year he founded a new entity, the Adamson Alumni Association, which already has 456 members and has raised $25,000, mainly in small donations, for the scholarship fund.

He told me with a certain indignation in his voice that a young reporter, doing a story on the Adamson Foundation for a daily newspaper, had asked him something like, "Why does an old rich white guy like you care about these minority kids at Adamson?"

"Can you imagine him asking me that?" he said.

I said yes. It was pretty much what I was wondering myself.

He explained a little bit about the Adamson Foundation. It was started with money donated by a series of unmarried elderly and retired former Adamson teachers. Sonia Cabrales is on the board now, but for a long time it was made up exclusively of white graduates of Adamson from bygone eras. When it began to have serious money to hand out, the foundation established a rigorous system of interviews and assessments, and it was in that process that the board members began to know the kids who are at Adamson today.

Straus talked about Grimes.

"You know, a math teacher just pulled him aside one day and said, 'You are college material.' He was kind of like, 'What's college?' And look at him now. Just knowing someone like Anthony makes you realize that in every community there is a top echelon that is going to succeed no matter what."

Straus was protective of Grimes' privacy, but I could tell he knows chapter and verse on him -- girlfriend issues, family stuff, the kinds of things a man knows about a son.

We talked a little about the small universe that the Adamson kids tend to live in -- Cabrales' remark that she never knew how big the world was until she went to Austin.

Straus told me this story: "When I was a senior at Adamson in 1958, we didn't take SATs. We took the University of Texas entrance exam. It was given at Hillcrest High School. We were supposed to be there at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.

"So about five of us loaded into a friend's old Chevrolet and drove over there. We had never really been out of Oak Cliff. We didn't even know how long it would take to get there, so we left too early and got there about 7 a.m.

"To kill time, we just drove around in that area on Royal Lane and looked. Those were the biggest houses we had ever seen in our lives. We started driving up and down the east-west streets between Hillcrest and Preston.

"I am telling you, there was silence in that car the whole time. All five of us were speechless. That's when I realized what a sheltered life I had led."

Going back to Adamson now, finding kids like Sonia Cabrales and Anthony Grimes and showing them a window on the world outside Oak Cliff, has been a life-changing experience for him, Straus said.

"This has been about the most rewarding thing I've ever gotten involved in," he said, "and I can't even tell you why."

Grimes talks about the small-world issue too. One of his best friends at UT was a young man from a wealthy San Antonio family. They sat up until the wee hours night after night in the dorm, trying to help each other understand who they were and where they came from.

"One night I told him, people in the lower class are living in a clear glass bottle, but they don't know it. They can see out, but they don't know they're trapped in the bottle. People on the outside can look in and see that you are trapped."

I asked him what I had asked Cabrales: Why you? Why are you making it, when more than two-thirds of the kids you started high school with are still trapped in the bottle?

He said part of it may have had to do with his mother's difficulties. "I think I took responsibility for myself. I've heard so many people say because they don't have a father, that's the reason they turned out bad. I think that is bull. I didn't have a father. I didn't turn out bad, because I chose not to. There was all that stuff, there were drugs around. I chose not to do them. I thought it was necessary to take responsibility, and I wanted to please my mom."

Grimes is still in school at UT because he changed majors. He spent his first three years preparing for a business career.

"My teachers at Adamson had pushed me toward business courses, and I did pretty well at it. But after three years it just didn't catch my attention. I took a few math classes, and they really grabbed me."

He is engaged to be married. After he graduates this year, he says, he and his fiancée plan to move to San Antonio, where she is from and where Grimes plans to teach math in a public high school.

"My eyes have been opened tremendously," he said, "and I see both worlds now. I understand a lot more about life, I guess."

He wants to get someone else out of the bottle.

Lydia

Lydia Davila graduated from Adamson in 1998 as valedictorian and received a four-year scholarship from the Adamson Foundation to UT. That year the Dallas Independent School District told state officials the drop-out rate at Adamson was 3.3 percent. Davila started Adamson in 1995 in a class of 680 freshmen. Her graduating class was 231, giving her class a real drop-out rate of 66 percent. The percentage of students at Adamson deemed economically disadvantaged that year was 66.1 percent.

"Both of my parents were from Guanajuato. My dad caught the last of the Bracero program. They got married in the early '70s and moved to Dallas. I am the third of four kids and the only girl. I was born in Dallas in 1980."

When she arrived at Adamson as a freshman, she took a pre-honors biology class from Peggy Henson.

"Her theory was that nobody should fail. She was always telling us you have to be assertive and always fight for what we believed in. When I couldn't get in a class I needed or something, she would say, 'This is an administrative problem. You need to go get your parents, and you come back and you fight for it.' If you were having trouble in a class, she would say, 'You go back to that teacher, and you ask for help. You ask him to tutor you after school. Be assertive.'"

Davila was shocked by how tough the university was at first.

"I got a D in my psychology class. I had a roommate who studied less than I did, and she got an A. I couldn't believe it. She kept telling me, 'It's just the way you study.'"

Davila had to confront a reality: Being assertive and ambitious, being basically smart, having a good attitude, and even studying regularly were not enough. She had to find ways to study that would enable her to master the subject matter.

"I tried everything, the concentrating and the whole process. I tried different stuff. I tried outlining the chapters, and that did not help. I tried re-typing my notes, and that helped, but not enough."

Finally, in desperation, she invented her own scheme. For each course, she made out a set of flash cards and drilled herself relentlessly. Eventually her grades moved back up to the high marks she had enjoyed in high school.

She has strong feelings about Adamson. She values the teachers and the mentors from the Adamson Foundation who showed her the larger world beyond. But having seen that world, she now knows all too keenly what a poor job the school and the school system do for the vast majority of students, the ones who never get a glimpse.

"I don't see Adamson as a bad school. It just didn't have enough opportunities."

She's going into journalism. Bar the door, DISD headquarters.

Armando and Gerardo

Armando and GerardoWe met for coffee at the Starbucks in the new Albertson's at Jefferson and Hampton in Oak Cliff. Armando Monsivais is 25 years old, a graduate of SMU in classical guitar and piano. His brother, Gerardo, is 18, a senior at Adamson. Armando is teaching guitar, paying off student loans, and trying to save. He has been accepted as a student by one of the world's top classical guitarists in Mexico City, where he will go as soon as he has the money. His goal is to become an international performer.

"My first day at Adamson," he said, "there was a shooting. We were in the gym for registration. The coach was taking roll. I saw all these guys go one way past the open door, and then I saw them all running back the other way. Then this other guy comes past the door, pulls out a revolver, and starts shooting at them. The coach just kept on taking roll."

Armando has always been a natural musician, but at Adamson he ran up against the legendary band teacher, Moises E. Molina, who died in 1994 of liver disease at age 46 and for whom Molina High School on Duncanville Road was named. Molina had transformed the Adamson band into a regionally famous stage band and an electrifying mariachi group, both of which have endured his death.

Molina didn't put up with natural musicians who wouldn't study and practice. Armando's troubles came to a head with one especially embarrassing performance. Molina told him that he would either shape up, practice, study, and attend all of the band's performances whether he was playing or not, or Molina would see that he was kicked out of Adamson and sent back to South Oak Cliff High School, from which he'd transferred.

The discipline he learned from Molina and the band carried him through two years at Mountain View Community College and eventually won him a raft of scholarships to SMU, where he completed his degree.

At SMU he encountered really rich kids for the first time. Like Sonia Cabrales, he remembers the experience as one in which he himself had to grow beyond the biases he had brought from North Oak Cliff.

"I remember standing in this coffee place in line, and there were these girls in there who had the whole Clueless prep kind of look. They were talking about how much fat there is in ham, and it was the movie, itself, Clueless. I had to really control myself to keep from laughing out loud."

Gerardo, who hadn't had much opportunity to speak yet, said that he plans to attend UT-Arlington and major in computer science. Armando said, "So somebody in the family will finally make some money."

Both brothers are musical and also good at math. I remarked that people who are gifted at one often seem to be good at the other. Armando launched into a witty discourse on how Pythagoras of Samos, the sixth-century B.C. Greek philosopher and mathematician, came to his theory of musical intervals by listening to the ringing of a blacksmith's hammer. While his brother held forth, Gerardo grinned and nodded, I suspect having heard this story before.

I asked Armando why he made it.

"There's a world you grow up in. Everywhere you live in South Dallas or Oak Cliff or the projects, you look around and you think, 'Why should I make it?' You grow up in this environment. It's this little world you live in. You have to break out of it.

"As a little kid, I dreamed of working with my dad when I grew up. When I was little we would go with him and help him clean up blood spills in the packing house where he worked. I thought I would go to college, you know, graduate, wear a tie, and then come work with him in my tie, cleaning up the blood spills.

"Right now, performance is my goal. I'd also like to get my master's at Yale. But for me, the biggest moment in my life was to graduate from Adamson, because no one in my family had ever finished high school."

Manuel

Manuel Herrera and I met at the Albertson's Starbucks on a Sunday morning. He is 21 years old and attends Northwood University in Cedar Hill. He is there on an Adamson Foundation scholarship as well as a track and cross-country scholarship from the university.

"I came to this country when I was 11. We lived in the town of Celaya in Guanajuato. I have been back once. I remember my town and my friends. They are good memories."

His mother brought him first to California, then to Oak Cliff.

"I was afraid when I started Adamson. There were stories I had heard. A lot of gang kids were there. They were mostly Hispanic but born in the United States."

I asked him why he didn't do the same things the gang kids did.

"I had my dream set," he said. "I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to study and become successful."

I asked him why. Why did he have a dream, and the others didn't?

He gazed around the bright new store for a moment. Herrera has been married for a year and a half. His beautiful young wife and their four-month-old baby had come with him to the Starbucks but were sitting a few tables away from us, perhaps because they didn't want to interrupt the business we were conducting. He looked at them before answering.

"In my town in Mexico, a lot of young kids go out from elementary school, they leave school, and they go out into the fields to work. In elementary school I always got good grades, and my mom knew I had some kind of a talent. I think that's why she came to the United States."

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.

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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