‘Thanks for be­ing there’

Aviva teens re­flect on strug­gles, courage that led them to grad­u­a­tion

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - SANDY BANKS

When I was asked to speak at the Aviva High grad­u­a­tion, my march­ing or­ders were clear: Of­fer a lit­tle wis­dom and loads of en­cour­age­ment. Th­ese girls had been through a lot.

There were only five stu­dents in the grad­u­at­ing class. One didn’t show up.

Aviva ed­u­cates teenage girls who need emo­tional or be­hav­ioral sup­port. The cer­e­mony was held in Hol­ly­wood, at Tem­ple Is­rael. In the au­di­ence, a smat­ter­ing of fam­ily mem­bers sat in fold­ing chairs along­side teach­ers, coun­selors and friends.

I took the stage and spoke about the typ­i­cal com­mence­ment ideals: Face your fears, trust your heart, don’t give up eas­ily.

Then each girl walked up to get her di­ploma and de­liver her own grad­u­a­tion speech. I re­al­ized how in­ad­e­quate my bro­mides had been.

Their es­says were con­fes­sion­als of all they had bat­tled:

An­drea was “a train wreck of a per­son” by the time she reached her teens. She was raised by an al­co­holic woman who was physi- cally and emo­tion­ally abu­sive. She had moved through a se­ries of foster homes and ditched school so of­ten that she was fail­ing all her classes. Ev­ery­one she loved seemed to die or run off.

Diana had spent her child­hood “hop­ping be­tween foster homes be­cause fam­i­lies could not tol­er­ate my bad be­hav­ior.” She was an­gry and volatile, al­ways fight­ing and mouthing off. By mid­dle school, she was us­ing drugs and al­co­hol; life seemed bear­able only when she was high.

Da­vanna’s mother and fa­ther were in jail when she was born. Her pa­ter­nal grandma took her in but couldn’t keep her safe. She was bul­lied and beaten by class­mates and be­gan to harm her­self. She was in and out of men­tal hos­pi­tals and group homes. “At each one, I be­came tougher and less afraid, which was not a good thing,” she said. “My motto was ‘Get them be­fore they get you.’” When she gave a room­mate a con­cus­sion, she wound up in ju­ve­nile hall.

Pamela had been as­saulted when she was very young and was afraid to tell any­one. Her pain turned to anger and self-loathing. In mid­dle school, she threat­ened to kill other peo­ple and

tried to kill her­self. When she came to Aviva, she wouldn’t speak or so­cial­ize. She could barely read or write.

On Fri­day, she sobbed at the podium as she walked us through the changes in her life. “I’ve cho­sen to con­front my fears,” she read from her es­say. “I want to have a good fu­ture.... I want to help chil­dren get a good ed­u­ca­tion.”

She thanked her teach­ers, one by one, for help­ing her to read, push­ing her to fin­ish her work, in­tro­duc­ing her to other cul­tures and just “be­ing there for me.”

There was a hint of that sen­ti­ment in ev­ery speech: “Thanks for be­ing there for me.”

It made me think of what gets lost when we talk about things high school­ers need: tougher math, more AP classes, bet­ter coun­sel­ing.

Those things are im­por­tant, but so is the sense that some­one knows you as more than a mark on an at­ten­dance chart or a score on a fi­nal exam.

That’s what Aviva High pro­vides for girls who’ve been locked up, kicked out and la­beled as fail­ures. The school is part of a net­work of coun­sel­ing and men­tal health pro­grams run by Aviva Fam­ily and Chil­dren’s Ser­vices, a 100-year-old non­profit agency.

“Our teach­ers and coun­selors know the path to suc­cess is not al­ways a straight

‘Our teach­ers and coun­selors know the path to suc­cess is not al­ways a straight line up­ward.’

— Regina Bette, pres­i­dent, Aviva

line up­ward,” said Regina Bette, Aviva’s pres­i­dent. “That means giv­ing them chances and not giv­ing up on them be­cause they didn’t fol­low the rules, they cussed out a teacher, they got drunk again.”

The classes are small, and the teach­ers are sen­si­tive enough to know when a stu­dent’s melt­down is a dis­ci­pline is­sue and when it’s a cry for help.

“It’s not easy for the staff,” Bette said. “But they’ve seen it over and over again: You keep work­ing with the girls and wait un­til that mo­ment when it sticks.”

Some­times that wait can be very long, as Da­vanna made clear:

“I would like to end my speech by thank­ing Aviva staff for tol­er­at­ing me; my fa­vorite teacher, Kim Don­ner, for be­ing un­der­stand­ing and kind. I would es­pe­cially like to thank Mr. [Mil­ton] Brown for tak­ing me back all three times and not giv­ing up on me even when you felt I wasn’t lis­ten­ing.

“I was al­ways lis­ten­ing.”

The grad­u­ates’ es­says re­flected more than the hor­ror of dam­aged child­hoods.

I could hear the lessons they’d learned through their strug­gles, and feel the power of their re­siliency. I was struck by how much they loved their par­ents, even if those par­ents had ne­glected or aban­doned them.

And by how hard they are work­ing to learn to love them­selves.

“Mom, you have been through so much for me, and I know you have strug­gled with me a lot,” said Diana, lock­ing eyes with her mother in the au­di­ence. “I’m sorry for ev­ery­thing I have ever done. My in­ten­tions were never to hurt you. I feel like just yes­ter­day, you were dress­ing me up for the first day of school.”

I silently thanked Diana on be­half of ev­ery mother who has ush­ered a daugh­ter through the storms of ado­les­cence.

At 19, she’s re­al­ized that “life isn’t easy, but it is worth fight­ing for.” She’s sober and healthy, wise be­yond her years and hopes to join the Air Force and be­come a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer.

“I am thank­ful for ev­ery bad choice I ever made and ev­ery per­son that was put in my path to give me a hard time,” she told the grad­u­a­tion crowd. She wouldn’t have changed her self-de­struc­tive ways if peo­ple hadn’t cared enough to keep try­ing to stop her.

“I made many mis­takes, but those same mis­takes have made me the per­son I am to­day,” she said, as heads nod­ded and peo­ple in the au­di­ence ap­plauded.

“Now it’s time to prove to ev­ery­one — in­clud­ing my­self — that I can make some­thing of my life.”

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

AVIVA HIGH grad­u­ate Pamela fights back tears as she de­liv­ers an emo­tional speech dur­ing her com­mence­ment Fri­day. The cer­e­mony was in Hol­ly­wood.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

AVIVA HIGH grad­u­ates An­drea, left, Pamela and Diana are among five teens com­plet­ing their ed­u­ca­tion at the al­ter­na­tive school for girls who need emo­tional or be­hav­ioral sup­port.

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