I collect quotations the way some people collect stamps. I purchase magnets, signs, and books filled with wise and witty sayings and then use them to inspire and motivate. I suspect that I knew that I was meant to be a Big KIPPster as soon as I saw some of my all time favorite quotes donning the walls of the buildings of KIPP Charter Schools on my first visit to the original southwest campus. My time in the KIPP world was brief in the grand scheme of things but just long enough to change me forever. It was in many ways the penultimate thrill of my career in education. I was mostly taken by the earnestness of the people representing the three pillars of the KIPP world, namely the parents, the teachers, and the students. When I recently heard the following words, “Learn to live above your circumstances.” I immediately thought of my days at KIPP Houston High School and the wonderful people that I had encountered there. Mostly I remembered the students, a group of young people eager to do the hard work necessary to defy their circumstances even on days when it seemed impossible. This past weekend I was lucky enough to be with three of them who had indeed excelled and changed the trajectory of their lives through their own hard work and the support of extraordinary adults.
Leslie Leal, Becky Figueroa, and Joel Gonzalez were members of the KIPP Houston High School Class of 2011. They entered as freshmen during my second year at the school. It became immediately apparent that they and their fellow students were an incredibly sweet and hard working group who would always be known as the easy going class. From the beginning they lived up to the KIPP mantra, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” These three students in particular were quiet and unassuming, humble yet determined during their years at the school. I watched them grow from eager young freshmen to polished seniors intent on exploring the world. In essence Leslie, Becky, and Joel represent all the best of being a KIPPster.
Leslie played softball and tended to her lessons. She enjoyed to the school dances with her friends and volunteered eagerly for days of community service. Eventually she became a member of the National Honor Society owing to her qualities of scholarship, character, service, and leadership. She was a special person with her quick and inviting smile that lit up every room that she entered. I always enjoyed talking with her and felt that had I been one of her peers she and I would likely have been the best of friends. Becky liked volleyball and showed her love for the fine arts early on. She read poems from Emily Dickinson at the school Poetry Slam. She was a thinker who earned the class honor of being “the quietest.” Joel loved science and his hilarious friends. He started an after school YuGiOh club and excelled at robotics. He was a very likable fellow who was admired by his classmates. All three were truly good students, loved by their teachers and everyone who knew them. It was no surprise when they were accepted to Concordia University in Austin, Texas at the end of their senior year of high school. We all believed that they would be successful in the next phase of their lives.
The three of them set off in search of knowledge and adventure in the fall of 2011. At first they clung to one another. They were after all the first in their families to attend college. They had only vague inklings of what to expect. They were excited but maybe a tiny bit afraid. Soon enough they learned that attending Concordia University feels much like being part of a family. The professors provided each of them with time and attention. The other students were friendly and helpful. It didn’t take them long to be as comfortable as they had been at KIPP Houston High School. They were soon striking out on their own, making new friends and learning new things. In what seemed like only a second they had completed their course work and were ready to graduate.
Leslie majored in Management in the School of Business. Becky decided to hone her writing craft in the School of Liberal Arts. Joel continued to follow his interest in Biology. All of them worked hard to meet all of the requirements for earning their degrees. This past Saturday on a splendidly gorgeous Austin day they were honored for their efforts at the Concordia commencement in a beautiful ceremony against the back drop of the rolling hill country of Texas. They had each done what no one in the history of their families had ever before accomplished. They became the first to earn college degrees. They had indeed risen above the circumstances of their lives to become role models for all future generations. The pride in the eyes of their family members on that glorious day was so apparent. Step by step, moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year they had worked for this and their efforts were magnificent!
Leslie already has a possible job lined up in Austin. She grew to love the city during her time there and is thrilled that she may get to stay when she launches her career. She has become a competent and confident woman who is ready to take on the world. Becky wants to continue her education. She feels that she has more to learn about writing. She has applied to a number of advanced programs at universities as far flung as Houston and Anchorage, Alaska. Her adventures will lend themselves well to the stories that she composes in the future. I suspect that one day we may all be flipping through the pages of the latest Becky Figueroa novel. Joel is considering his options. He may study for the MCAT and then enter medical school or he may choose to extend his education in the hopes of delving into research. No dream is too big for any of these remarkable people. They have learned that they are capable of anything that they set their minds on doing.
Last week I wrote about young men and women in forgotten neighborhoods across America who seem to be lost and directionless. I suggested ways to go into such places to rekindle a spirit of hope. I based my ideas on programs and techniques that I have seen produce miracles. Leslie, Becky, and Joel are the products of just such schools where they learned early on to have “No Excuses.” They understood that life is akin to the arduous journey of climbing to the top of a mountain. Their teachers guided them and helped them to understand that there will be times when they are sucking for air and feeling so exhausted that they don’t think that they can move another inch. It is in those moments that they must push themselves beyond what they ever believed possible. Leslie, Becky, and Joel have done just that. Now they have become the change and the role models for future generations. Hopefully they will remember to strive for consequence in their lives. True success is measured in the impact that they will have on those that they encounter along the way.
I suspect that Leslie, Becky, and Joel will be exceptional leaders and human beings just as they always have been. I’m honored and grateful to know them and to have been invited to be part of their celebration as they graduated. I wish them all of the best and want them to know that in the spirit of KIPP there are many of us who mentored them when they were younger who are willing to walk beside them in their futures. We will always be just one phone call, email, text, or Facebook message away. Life is both exciting and challenging. Leslie, Becky and Joel are ready for whatever comes their way.