For most of us, high school is a time of innocence. Sure, it’s a period in our lives when we start to awaken to the harsh realities of the world, but it’s also a time of liberatingly little responsibility. For most high school seniors, life is still about having your meals prepared for you, your laundry washed for you, and impressing your friends.
That’s why the seniors profiled in this story are special. For them, the world is already a place where challenge, hardship and heartbreak exist.
But instead of crawling back under their covers each morning, these kids have met their challenges head on and realized that life is a richer experience for having suffered and been made stronger for it.
“They have shown such wisdom, maturity beyond their teenage years, class through adversity and perseverance. They’re just all so ‘go with the flow, roll with the punches, play with the hand that’s been dealt them,’” says Ann McNutt, an administrative intern at Hillcrest High School who has known many of these kids since they were in middle school.
“I cannot see that a lot of us would have done as well as they have with the obstacles that they have risen above and beyond.”
People who complain about their lives could learn a thing or two from Omeed Kivnani.
He was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when one or more of a fetus’ vertebrae don’t fully form, allowing the spinal cord to bulge out of the spine. And he also suffers from hydrocephalus, a fluid buildup in the brain that, if left untreated, can produce enough pressure to cause brain damage.
Because of his spina bifida, Omeed has difficulty walking; he just recently started using a wheelchair at school. He also has a shunt in his head to relieve the fluid buildup in his brain, and there are a number of other problems associated with his health issues.
And as if all this weren’t enough to deal with, Omeed is missing one-half of a typical teenager’s support system: He hasn’t seen his father since he was 11 years old.
“He didn’t want to deal with me because of my handicap,” Omeed explains simply. “My father is a great example of what not to be.”
Because of what he has been through, Omeed has a wisdom about life that most 18-year-olds don’t have. In regular conversation, he’s likely to say things like: “The people you know today, the house you live in, the challenges you face, both as a person and in society, aren’t necessarily what will be there tomorrow.”
He ought to know. He’s seen how life can change in an instant. Three years ago, a succession of problems associated with his medical conditions put him in the hospital repeatedly. He had to be home-schooled to keep up with his class, and one surgery left him learning how to walk all over again.
“That really put me to the test,” he says.
Omeed credits his mother, and two uncles who live in Chicago, for being his support system. He talks to his uncles on the phone nearly every other day.
“It’s unimaginable what my life would be like without them. One of my uncles, since I don’t have a father, he’s kind of like my disciplinarian. And my other uncle is like the brother I never had,” he says. “With the exception of my mom, they’re my greatest assets.”
Omeed has also grown closer to friends at school, he says, a prospect that was difficult for him at first.
“I’ve kind of felt shunned over the years. It isn’t up until lately that I’ve begun to feel important to people other than family members,” he says.
In the fall, Omeed will attend Richland or Brookhaven college. Though becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist is his goal, his passion is music. U2 and Depeche Mode are his favorite bands, and he calls Bono his idol. Eventually, he’d like to try his hand at deejaying.
“People can’t ignore me forever,” he says. “I want my presence felt eventually.”
All her life, Stella Vamboi was an only child. Her parents came to the United States from West Africa in 1981, and Stella was born in Dallas.
Then, two years ago, her world changed. Her mother had another daughter from a previous marriage, 26-year-old Remi, who still lived in West Africa. After nearly 20 years of bureaucratic wrangling, Stella’s mom finally was able to bring Remi to the States.
All of the sudden, Stella had a sister.
“The first time seeing my sister, it kind of felt funny,” says Stella, who has been involved with Hillcrest’s concert choir, track team, National Honor Society and Crimestopper Committee.
“You can’t just automatically get used to somebody the second you see them.”
But despite the differences presented by being raised on different continents, Stella says she and Remi have grown close.
“I’ve always wanted a sister, and now I know how that feels,” she says. “I always have someone to talk to.”
They’ve also found some sisterly hallowed ground.
“We are fanatics when it comes to shopping,” Stella says with a smile.”
McNutt commends Stella for her positive attitude toward life.
“She’s highly respected by the community, and she’s a nice girl,” McNutt says. “She could have taken a lot of paths, and she chose the high road.”
Stella, who will graduate with a 3.5 GPA, will attend either the University of North Texas, Texas Women’s University or University of Texas at Denton in the fall.
But before college, she will make a momentous trip. In June, she’s going to Sierra Leone with her uncle and his family for a month.
“I’m excited,” she says. “My mom is one of 11 brothers and sisters, so I’ll be trying to get to know my family members.”
For most seniors, the first day of that last year of school is a time of excitement and anticipation. For Gray Garmon, it was a day of overwhelming loss.
His mother, who had lived for six years with breast cancer, died that day in late August. During third period, his dad and grandmother came to school to tell him, a memory still too fresh.
“It was pretty tough,” he says, with tears in his eyes.
But in a fitting tribute, Gray says the lessons he learned from his mom helped him through a difficult year.
“My mom was really strong, and she was a very strong Christian,” he says. “She worked right up until she went into the hospital, and she did a good job of not scaring us or letting us become too much controlled by cancer in our lives.
“We just tried to take it one day at a time,” he says of his family, including his dad, 16-year-old sister Mallory and 21-year-old brother Will.
Last October, almost 40 family members – from his younger sister to his 89-year-old great aunt – participated in the Race for the Cure in his mom’s honor.
And he says the Hillcrest community also has been supportive.
“Everybody’s been really kind. A lot of people did something nice, just to help out. It was nice to know that people cared.”
Despite his loss, he’s ranked fourth in his class, and he’s a national finalist for a scholarship from Coca-Cola and recently was awarded the Susan G. Komen scholarship. He hopes to study architecture at either Yale, Princeton or the University of Texas.
“My family has been really strong and really helpful,” he says. “And my mom always pushed me to be independent. She’s a great example. She touched a lot of people.”
Not a lot of kids would willingly leave the place they’d grown up in to attend their senior year at a different school.
But then Lindsay Somos isn’t like a lot of kids. She’s a recent Hillcrest transplant, having moved here from Ohio last year to live with her aunt and uncle after experiencing problems with her mother’s unpredictable behavior.
“We don’t get along,” she says. “She’s not consistent. [Her] rules change, consequences change. And we wound up having a lot of disagreements. It was very stressful for everyone.”
But before you write Lindsay off as just another teenager unable to cope with authority figures, consider that this is a girl who plans to enlist in the military after she graduates and become a linguistics specialist for the Air Force. She’s also a National Merit Scholarship finalist.
She already speaks French and wants to learn Arabic. Her grandmother, who is from Tunisia and was a translator in World War II, is her inspiration.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with her, and I actually think she’s interesting,” she says. “Not a lot of people can pick up languages like Arabic, and politically, it happens to be in demand right now.”
Adjusting to an inner-city school after living in the suburbs of Cleveland has been difficult at times, she says.
“I was in culture shock for the entire first semester,” she says. “But people here are more easy going and laid back. Even if they don’t like you, they’re not going to spend a lot of effort looking at you funny.”
Lindsay says she and her mom “get along much better now that we don’t live in the same house,” but she says she misses her dad, with whom she remains close.
Overall, however, the change has been positive.
“The best part is to not have to worry about when you’re going to do something wrong,” she says. “It’s like if you had a job that the weather interfered with, and you suddenly moved to the calm tropics.”
Four years ago, Oscar Diaz was a different person. He lived in Honduras with his aunt, brother and sister. He didn’t speak any English, and he was headed in the wrong direction, hanging out with gangs and dabbling in petty crime.
Then he and his siblings came to the U.S. to be reunited with their parents after 10 years. On many levels, it was a shock: new country, new language, and parents he barely knew.
One of the toughest parts was learning English, he says.
“The first year was the hardest year because you didn’t know what you were doing. The teacher would come in and say a whole bunch of words, and you’d maybe understand a couple,” he says.
Oscar tried his hand at soccer, the national sport in Honduras, but found the language barrier a problem there as well.
“The coach would say go left, and I would go right. He would say pass, and I would shoot,” he says.
But his coach noticed his ability to run tirelessly and recommend Oscar try cross-country. At his first meet, he scored better than anyone on the team. He’s now fourth in the state and hopes to one day qualify for the Olympics.
He’s also succeeded academically, and is hoping to earn an athletic scholarship to attend SMU. And he has made many friends, not surprising given his quick sense of humor and easy smile.
Two of his closest friends are an unlikely pair: Mr. Jericho and Mr. Parker from Edgemere senior housing, where Oscar has worked for the last year and a half.
“They’re really good friends. They come to my meets, and they think I’m funny, too.”
He also has forged a great relationship with his parents.
“It took us about a year to get really close,” he says. “They wanted a better life for me, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them and the sacrifices they made for me.”
And though there are things he misses about Honduras, he said ultimately the move was the best thing for him.
“When you lose everything, you know what you really have. Moving from Honduras made me grow up,” he says. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world. I felt like it was a second chance.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.