It’s taken 12 years for one Southland college student to reach her bachelor’s degree graduation ceremony tomorrow.
During that time she’s been down for the count but has never thought about throwing in the towel.
There’s a backyard boxing ring in L.A.'s Silverlake neighborhood. On this day it’s all about breaking a sweat and getting some exercise.
A buzzer rings, which means warmup is over and it’s time to rumble. In one corner, gray-haired Ted Muller, an engineer by day who’s boxed for 20 years for exercise. In the other corner, a seven-year veteran of this gym, one inch shy of five feet: Frances Calderon.
"I really just wanted to find a way to relieve some stress and at the same time get in a good workout, maybe polish up on some techniques," says Calderon, "because I’ve always been a decent street fighter, but not a technical fighter, you know."
She grew up close to here, and attended Belmont High School, leading a sort of double life. During school, Frances was a cheerleader and a promising honors English student. After school she saw the grip of gangs and drugs.
At 15 years old, her life changed. "I don’t know, I guess I thought I fell in love with the one. He waited and stuff happened eventually, and a year later I was pregnant."
She considered but rejected the idea of an abortion. And she didn’t give up on school.
With a high school equivalency degree, she worked shopping mall retail jobs, then clerical jobs in real estate. She broke up with her daughter’s father.
Her current boyfriend, a Cal State Northridge student then, pushed her back into the ring of education at East L.A. College. "My boyfriend literally took me one day by the hand and walked me on campus to ELAC and got my paperwork and said, 'All right, fill this paperwork out.'"
That was 12 years ago. Calderon started boxing at about the time Cal State L.A. said it would accept her transfer if she passed her math classes the first year. "I didn’t. So with that restriction they ended up kicking me out basically and I had to go back to ELAC."
She beat her math fears by making friends in the East L.A. College math lab and training like a prizefighter. "I really got excited when I would figure out a formula or understood what I was working on, from basic math to statistics, I got really excited. And would obsess over it. I mean, I would wake up screaming formulas."
Calderon has been back at Cal State L.A. for the last three years as a part-time student. The drive from her fulltime clerical job at L.A. Unified in downtown L.A. means she takes only evening classes.
"I’m tired, I’m tired because I’ve always worked and I’ve always gone to school. And I’ve always had bills," says Calderon. "So there’s no compromise there, you know, that’s what it is. And on top of that I’ve been responsible for a little girl."
But she hasn’t sacrificed her social life or exercise. Calderon’s at that backyard boxing ring every Friday after work to spar with Ted Muller.
"She’s gotten a lot better defensively," says Muller. "She’s added more punches to her arsenal, so to speak. Her movement’s a lot better. She’s on balance. She’s got good balance."
She’ll need that balance as her daughter starts at a private college prep high school on L.A.'s westside in the fall. By that time, Calderon hopes to be in graduate school.
"I attribute my success," says Calderon, "or everything I’ve achieved up to this point to every single part of my life, from being in the streets, to getting pregnant as a teen mom, to the great experiences I had in high school with teachers, on my cheerleading squad."
She also credits her family, especially her mother, who’s been like a trainer in her corner giving her advice between rounds. She’ll be there tomorrow at Cal State L.A. when Frances Calderon receives her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies.