Nearly 600 high school students from throughout L.A. County overcame histories of crime, expulsion, substance abuse, disability or pregnancy to turn the tassel today and earn a diploma.
About 275 of these students, dressed in robes of crimson and white, were joined this afternoon by their families as they packed into Walt Disney Concert Hall Downtown to celebrate what many thought they would never achieve.
Valedictorian Michael Hobgood calmly told the roughly 1,800 people in the audience his tale, which he said could represent any number of students' stories. When Hobgood was 3 years old, his mother was hit by a truck while she biked home from work. He was told she had died and he left for Nevada with his father. For years, the father administered beatings until he was arrested when Hobgood was 6.
Hobgood ended up in a group home, which he called paradise: "For the first time in three years I felt safe and happy."
Later, reunited with his mother, Hobgood began learning to read by sharing Harry Potter books with her. "As time went on, I began to realize that education can open many doors," he said.
Hobgood graduated with a 4.0 GPA with AP courses under his belt, and also held down a part-time job this past year. He is now enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.
Hobgood said he may have had to take an hour-long bus ride to and from school, but that never deterred him.
"I don't make excuses when it comes to my education," Hobgood told the crowd as they cheered him on.
After the ceremony, the newly minted grads gave each other grins as they searched for their families.
Vincent Padgett, 19, stopped outside to enjoy the fresh air and smoke a celebratory cigarette.
“It feels really good," Padgett said. "Make my mom proud. This was the main thing she wanted in my whole life.”
Padgett graduated from Juvenile Camp David Gonzalez in Calabasas, where he served six months time. He was released in December, just in time for Christmas.
“I never thought I’d live past 18. So I’m proud and I’m happy," Padgett said. And now he's graduating, he said, moving exuberantly from one foot to the other on the sidewalk.
On this day Padgett is dressed smartly, in a crimson tie to match his crimson gown. He has a small red kerchief in his shirt pocket. And his grandmother, mother, sisters and girlfriend are in the crowd somewhere along with his "homies" — all there to support him.
Padgett is now taking classes at Long Beach City College in Lakewood and plans to study welding. He said he's had to work on his anger and learn to talk "respectfully and correctly."
"I had to learn to get along with everybody no matter who they are, where they're from, and just worry about my own stuff and not everybody else," Padgett said. "I'm going to be successful in life. That's just the past. And I'm going to be able to look at back then and see what I was doing when I was younger, and see what I'm doing in the future."
He said he's learned from his mistakes, and took a moment to reflect back.
“It’s just, it’s being in a gang, and not caring bout nothing," Padgett said. "But now, as I matured and got older, I started realizing my family needs me, and I need to break the cycle of everyone else in my family.”
Padgett gave this advice to others who are in the situation he was in: "If you want something go all out for it, and at the end you feel real good about it. Go through all the hard work and then in the end it pays you."
Only a few hundred of the 595 grads under the Los Angeles County Office of Education walked the stage; they come from at least 30 schools across the county and represent students from the 2011-12 school year. Some remain incarcerated, while others are out in community day programs, or like Padgett, are no longer in a camp.
"This is really the payday for us in the Los Angeles County Office of Education, these are kids in their lifetime who perhaps made some bad decisions or maybe needed some help," said L.A. County Office of Education Superintendent Arturo Delgado.
While every such ceremony is a major marker in a high schooler’s life, Delgado said this one is a little more special.
“For these kids a lot of them didn’t see this coming as a real option for them. As they’ve gone through the system they’ve taken advantage of the opportunities afforded to them, and little by little they chipped away and here they are getting a diploma which for them represents again some hope for tomorrow.”
The work isn’t done yet though.
"The hope is that…they’re able to leave our system and contribute to regular society," Delgado said. "That’s what we’re really after.”
Nearly every parent, family member or girlfriend at the ceremony talked about their hopes that their new graduate would attend college. Many of these students head off to local community colleges and Cal State Universities.
One mother, Martina Gonzalez of Hawthorne, was at the ceremony with her three grandchildren and daughter, for her 20-year-old daughter Jeselyn Castillo. She gave these words of advice and her hopes for the future: "Keep studying, go to school, make a future for California, for everybody."
For Vincent Padgett, and many of these graduates, the day was a big step forward and a look to the future. A place more promising than their pasts.