In thirty-some years as an educator, I have never seen a child quite like Lucero Chavez. My first recollection of her is not just her dark eyes, wide open and ready to learn. Not just her extraordinary drive– that silent motor that hummed somewhere from deep inside her. Not just her willingness to push mountains of assignments and projects and papers and essays and school tasks faster than her teachers could assign them. Not just her manners, though she has those in abundance. Not just her excellence.
Instead, my first recollection of Lucero Chavez is of her indescribable grace. I clearly remember, mostly as she got older, that she was a presence, in any room or gathering. A very quiet presence. Even mysterious.
At Mueller Charter School, we have had thousands of children blessed with many different gifts and talents– some discovered but most still incubating. The longer they are with us on their journey from kindergarten through middle school, the more we become aware of them: kids that are funny, or athletic, or bright, or troubled, or loud, or musical, or demanding, or engaging. Leaders, followers, drivers, entertainers, statesmen. Individually, they emerge from their self-imposed shadows on the strength of those unique qualities. Indeed, the great joy of teaching is watching a young person begin to flower and evolve. And we have had so many students who were blessed in so many different ways.
But none of those were the gift that set Lucero apart.
It was her grace; an almost-haunting presence that was part intellectual, part spiritual. Inside any classroom, and in the hundreds of weekly assemblies in which Lucero participated over the years– even gatherings outdoors– I can still see her. Always as close to the front as she could get, always sitting up straight—not for the sake of perfect posture—but so that she could more efficiently absorb every word that was spoken. No matter how crowded, no matter the climate of the room–wherever you stood or walked or paced, if you were speaking– her eyes were riveted. Eerily attentive. As if she were dependent on every syllable and teaching for her very breath—no matter how nonsensical, or vapid, or routine, or insignificant. As if you and Lucero Chavez, were the only two people in the room.
Lucero Chavez has an extraordinary desire to learn from people and places and events around her. Her thirst for learning is both palpable and insatiable.
It would be so easy to mistake her devotion to learning as simple compliance, or a young girl’s blind obedience to authority. But from the moment Lucero Chavez first realized that she had a power within her to literally change the world—somewhere back in her first years at Mueller Charter School—she has been on her own remarkable journey.
In her junior year of high school, while the ever-shifting economy was grinding down so many families across America, it was grinding down Lucero’s family too. Soon they lost their home and a place in the market. All the while, in tragic and silent dignity, she endured. Endured the ambiguity that poverty creates—the uncertainty of the train derailed. Endured her parents’ pain and the loss of her room and her kitchen table and the hallway lined with her honor student certificates and photos dancing in the ballet folklorico.
But she embraced homelessness with the same dignity and attentiveness that she embraced all her other learning experiences. She sat up straight, her dark eyes wide open and fixed on going forward, and she continued her journey.
By midway through her senior year, she had been accepted to every college and university to which she applied. Her first choice was Dartmouth. And because her family was still reeling from homelessness, she would need financial assistance to go so far away. So like thousands of other high school seniors, she began the process of applying for financial assistance. And in piecing together her life history in response to the many prying questions written to ascertain whether Lucero Chavez was diligent and deserving enough to pursue her dream of attending such a prestigious Ivy League college – she discovered something about herself she never knew. Something her parents had never told her. Something potentially more debilitating to a kid than sudden homelessness. Something that in the present light of divisive national politics and racism—would destroy a weaker person and all her dreams.
Lucero discovered she was not an American citizen.
She had been brought to the United States illegally as an infant. Brought by parents who could look beyond the border walls and see the lights of America and know that that is where they wanted to raise their little girl. And so they came. Like your forbearers and mine. Not for their own gain, but for Lucero.
And she has consistently rewarded her parents and family and teachers and friends– giving back to them through her remarkable academic and personal excellence.
In June of 2013, Lucero Chavez represented the 700 graduating seniors of Hilltop High School as their class valedictorian, and delivered her message of resilience to the world.
It was extraordinary in what she didn’t say. She didn’t describe her struggles through poverty. She never once mentioned her acceptance letter from Dartmouth or boast about her extraordinary academic achievements in multiple languages. She didn’t mention that she opted to attend University of San Diego– partly out of fear that, as a result of her now-public dilemma, her parents could be deported. She didn’t rail on our policy makers for their inability to deliver a definitive message or compassionate safeguards through the so-called Dream Act.
Instead, she delivered a hopeful and familiar message that spoke for the common and routine experience of every high school kid in the room: the insecurities of adolescence, the joy of Friday night football and prom, the relative accomplishments of student leadership groups, and of course, the relationships.
Beyond that, for Lucero Chavez at least, the future is less certain.
I sat at the edge of my chair and listened. I hung on every word. And as she spoke, I could not take my eyes her. Could not fight back the tears of pride and regret that I was not more of a light for her– this extraordinary young woman grown before our very eyes.
Twelve years ago I wrote the vision statement that defines our school today: “Our Children Will Change the World.” It was not meant to be a just another cheesy slogan with which to decorate school stationary. It is our collective vision. It means that these children– mostly Latino, mostly from high poverty homes where parents sacrificed everything for the education that they never had—these children who are easy to ignore and discount and write off and deport—will have the capacity and opportunity to literally change our world for the better if we position them to do so. If we provide them with the caring and support. If we maintain high expectations. If we provide them with opportunities to fully develop their gifts and their voice.
In the weeks leading up to her Valedictorian speech, Lucero was beset with media outlets requesting interviews and longing to tell her story. Even CNN. She is the face of homelessness. The face of an immigration policy in desperate need of a champion. And ironically, the face of American excellence. She is single-handedly changing the world.
And now, after thirty some years in education, and tens of thousands of students– most now grown to adults—my own personal mission is fulfilled. By none, more remarkable, more courageous, more resilient, more blessed… than Lucero Chavez.