I graduated from Mt. Carmel High School fifty years ago. When I left I never really looked back. Like most teenagers my four years in secondary education had been both the best and the worst of times. I have warm memories of friendships and educational explorations but also painful thoughts of hurts and slights. Fortunately the good far outweighed the bad and the things that I learned there served me well in the years, then decades that followed.
I was always quite proud of my school because at the time that I was there it was an institution marked by academic rigor and excellence. Over time it began to lose its luster and enrollment dwindled. It remained in a location that was hardly conducive to attracting students whose parents were willing to pay large sums of money for their children’s edification. As a Catholic school with little or no support from the Diocese of Galveston Houston it struggled to keep up with even minimal repairs and to maintain a faculty willing to work for ridiculously low wages. The time came when the school was no longer able to sustain itself and it had to close its doors, reinventing itself as a charter school within the Houston Independent School District. It became a ghost of its former self known as Mt. Carmel Academy now located in an old church building a few blocks away.
The ediface where I had blossomed into a citizen of the world stood on Mt. Carmel Drive in ruins and there was talk of tearing it down until a visionary named Father T.J. Martinez envisioned a new life for the battered place. He realized that it would be a perfect home for a Cristo Rey High School along the lines of others that had been created in a network that spans all the United States. With a never ending imagination and an uncanny knack for fundraising Father Martinez transformed the place into a dazzling urban environment. In 2008 Cristo Rey Jesuit Preparatory High School of Houston opened its doors for the first time. It’s focus was on economically disadvantaged students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to receive a rigorous education coupled with a foundation of religious teaching and social justice.
I had heard about Cristo Rey and followed its progress with interest, particularly because its location was directly connected with my past. When I retired five years ago I found myself foundering a bit because I wasn’t quite ready to live a life of leisure. I still wanted to contribute something significant to society and so I found myself searching for some type of part time employment. When I mentioned my quest on Facebook a former colleague who was working at Cristo Rey told me that the school needed someone to tutor students in mathematics. I met with the principal and felt an immediate connection with the her and the organization’s mission. Before long I was driving back to my old digs three afternoons each week.
My first year was somewhat slow and I often waited in a classroom for an hour or so with no takers for my skills. By the second year, however, a group of students attended with regularity, sometimes bringing friends who were struggling with Algebra or Geometry. The numbers of young people that I was helping began to swell and among them was a young man named Angelo Vela.
Angelo is an affable young man with an infectious smile and a loyal group of friends. His freshman year at Cristo Rey had been highly successful for him but things had begun to go awry after the death of his grandmother who had lived with him and his mother. He had attempted to work to help ease some of his family’s financial burdens but found himself feeling chronically exhausted and eternally behind in meeting his obligations. He struggled to complete assignments and began to feel overwhelmed with academics, something that had never before happened to him. With a unflagging determination to recoup, he faithfully met with me whenever I was at the school and on many occasions worked late into the night. Before big tests or exams he often requested that I come more than just three days in a week and I generally deferred to his wishes because I was struck by his determination.
Over the next three years I got to know Angelo well. I realized that he possesses a keen intellect and a charisma that naturally draws people to him. Mostly though I saw that he has a genuine interest in people and in helping them to solve their problems and find their true identities. He is also a leader and someone who is unafraid to take risks. I became convinced over time that he is definitely going to be someone who will have a positive impact on the world because he literally never gives up.
Angelo once hunted me down when I was on a camping trip in west Texas during spring break. He had found an opportunity for summer learning and he needed to quickly procure a reference so that he might meet the application deadline. He had attempted to contact several people with no success until his texts reached me. I was more than happy to vouch for him because I had seen his earnest nature and grit up close. He ultimately became a finalist for the spot but lost to another student. Instead of brooding, Angelo learned from the experience and moved on to his next conquest.
Angelo Vela graduated from Cristo Rey High School this past Saturday. He sent me a unique invitation that he had created from his heart. He included photos and through texts expressed a sincere desire that I share his triumphant moment with him. Of course I was thrilled to go. I understood the hours of grueling effort that Angelo had put into achieving the first of the many goals that he has for himself. I was as proud of him as I have ever been. It made my heart sing to watch him walking across the stage. He had shown his strength of character and had proven his doubters wrong.
Angelo plans to attend the University of Houston in the fall. I suspect that he and I will continue to stay in contact. I have a vested interest in his future success. Those of us who know him best realize that he has yet to reveal the true extent of his many talents but they will surely become more and more apparent in the coming years.
I have a deep respect for Angelo Vela and I am particularly grateful that he gave me such wonderful purpose at a time in my life when I had thought that my days of influence were long gone. I wish him all the best at he enters college along with his friends who also attended my tutoring sessions on so many afternoons.
Congratulations Angelo, Angel, Lauren, Yolanda, and Taylor, my very favorite tutees. You have all demonstrated your willingness to work hard, ask questions and put forth whatever extra effort is needed to meet your goals. I look forward to watching you in the exciting days ahead.