It’s a fair question: How do young people who have endured terrible trauma manage nonetheless to succeed in school? And if they can succeed when the odds are stacked so heavily against them, why can’t others?
It is, perhaps, a question for the ages, but such successes do happen regularly, if not frequently. A story in Tuesday’s Buffalo News highlighted five such students who, despite challenges that would have sent many people running for the exits, are now about to graduate high school. Their stories should serve as an example to others – children or adults – who think the conditions they face are too hard for them to bother trying.
Duska Samardzija, 17, is a single mother with a 3-year-old son. Doris Noh was a refugee, arriving from Thailand in 2008 and speaking no English. Renee Walker, a cheerleader, athlete and debate team member – among other things – was homeless. Dion Watkins came home one day to find that his mother had been killed. His stepfather was charged in the death. Angelina Mariamu was also a refugee, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. When she and her family arrived here from a refugee camp in Zambia five years go, she barely spoke any English.
The hurdles each of these remarkable students faced are daunting and, as obvious as they may seem, also invisible. Outsiders can in some way understand the obstacles that arose before each of these students, but for most observers, only in a superficial way. To truly comprehend requires walking in their shoes – for unending miles.
But mainly what it requires is an understanding that what they achieved is no impossible feat. Indeed, the world is full of people who rise above their circumstances to achieve some kind of greatness. Muhammad Ali did. Oprah Winfrey did. Three Roosevelts – Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor – did.
But many don’t. They lack the drive or the example or the self-confidence or some other quality that flatly refuses to accept the sentence of a lesser life. It’s a quality that acknowledges an important fact about failure: today’s shortcoming doesn’t have to be tomorrow’s. All of these students knew they had it in them to surmount severe disadvantages and they set about doing it.
How adults graft that knowledge onto other students is the question, and one whose answers are worth searching out. In one way or another, though, these five students – and, no doubt, many others around Western New York – have done their part. Not only have they overcome crippling adversities, but they made an example of themselves to their peers. If only they will take the lesson.