High school graduation is a milestone. Some acquire their diploma easily. Others earn theirs against all odds. These graduating seniors didn’t let life’s blows keep them down. This month, they will cross the commencement stage knowing their tribulations made them stronger.
Ladavia Abron Empy has been helping her family make ends meet since age 8.
While other kids worked odd jobs to save up for the latest toy, she worked to pay the bills.
“I think I missed out on my childhood,” she says.
The family receives aid from the Section 8 government program and uses food stamps. Her father comes and goes — he has at least 17 other children. Her mother has bipolar disorder, struggles to remain employed and allows bills to pile up each month.
“It’s stressful, and I get irritated,” Abron Empy says.
Despite a tumultuous home life, she matured quickly and immersed herself in school, excelling in math and science. She will graduate this month from W.T. White on the A-B Honor Roll and with a long list of extra-curriculars: National Honor Society president, Senior Executive Board member, Step Team captain, Varsity Choir and the LEEN mentoring program, just to name a few. Plus, she has worked part-time as a cashier at Tom Thumb for the past two years.
And she has done it all with little encouragement from her parents.
“My mom wasn’t involved in school when it comes to parent-teacher conferences and all the performances I’ve been in,” Abron Empy says.
Her teachers filled the void. Teachers like Mary Rivers.
“LaDavia calls me her second mom,” says Rivers, who teaches freshman biology and has remained close with Abron Empy through all four years of high school, giving her rides to school and helping her shop for a Homecoming dress.
“The science department has become her extended family for support that she doesn’t get at home,” Rivers says.
Before switching to pre-AP classes in 10th grade, Abron Empy made perfect scores on everything in Rivers’ ninth-grade Integrated Physics and Chemistry class.
“I was surprised she was not in a Pre-AP class. She just got 100s on everything.”
Abron Empy isn’t just book smart. She also has an artistic side.
“My number one passion is music,” she says.
She participated in the school’s original musical, “WTW.ENTERTAINMENT.COM”, and did a solo performance of “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige, one of Abron Empy’s favorite artists. Singing and listening to music helps take her mind off of pressures at home.
“By doing what I like, I don’t focus on what I’m stressed out about.”
All of her hard work and dedication has paid off. Abron Empy already has received an $8,000 scholarship to Texas Women’s University — $2,000 per year. She’s still waiting to hear back from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. She plans to major in chemistry and work in the medical field.
“As far as what’s happening at home after I leave, I’m not sure. I’m going to go to school and do what’s right for myself.”
Of course, Rivers has no doubt about Abron-empy’s future.
“I think she’s one of those people who has the ability for greatness. I think she has an innate intelligence, and she can go very far.”
Naghmeh Taefi had no hope of ever attending college.
Not until her family fled Iran amid religious persecution. For decades, the Iranian government has discriminated against people of the Baha’i faith, the country’s largest minority religion, resulting in violence, wrongful imprisonment and other injustices.
“My dad got fired from his job. Because we are Baha’i, they didn’t allow us to go to college,” Taefi says. “My mom and dad thought it would be a good idea to move.”
They joined other family members in Dallas, and Taefi entered sixth grade at Kramer Elementary. She spoke only Farsi, and struggled to adapt to American culture.
“It was hard to communicate with people,” she says. “They made fun of me. I had no one to talk to. That hardship motivated me to learn English.”
Taefi will graduate this month from Hillcrest High School. She speaks English like a native and enjoys studying math and science even though she struggled with the language. AP biology teacher Theresa Oriabure says Taefi never gave up.
“Biology has its own separate language. There’s so much vocabulary. It becomes a huge hill to climb.”
But while many students simply do the work to get through class and graduate, Oriabure says Taefi has a genuine desire to learn.
“She always searches for knowledge. Clone me 50 of these students,” Oriabure says of Taefi, “and I won’t have any problem.”
Taefi also is a member of the National Honor Society and participates in community service through the Interact and Key clubs. She plans to pursue a medical career.
Taefi has a passion for helping others — even outside of school. She mentors middle school students through the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program. She’s also mindful of those suffering beyond borders.
“If I became a doctor, I would want to travel to places like Haiti or Japan — wherever they need doctors.”
Abraham Alvardo is doing pretty well these days, talking casually and openly about his condition.
He shifts around in his seat with his hands clasped, anxiously rubbing his two index fingers together. Just a few years ago, his tics were uncontrollable, and going to school each day was a nightmare.
“As soon as I got in the car, I would just cry and cry and say I don’t want to go back there. But then, I would wake up the next day, and it’s … here we go again.
“I thanked God when I got to high school. Everything changed. It’s like a family here.”
The W.T. White senior suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, an inherited neurobiological disorder that causes involuntary movements, ranging from mild twitches to extreme verbal outbursts. He was diagnosed at age 13. It affects about 200,000 people in the United States, according to the Tourette Syndrome Association.
While at Marsh Middle School, Alvardo endured relentless bullying.
“I was scared. I thought I was going to get jumped.”
So he zoned out and kept people at a distance. When he arrived at W.T. White, he learned to manage his tics, which are triggered by anxiety. Holding them in only makes them worse. Nicole Wolfe, the school nurse, agreed to become his sounding board.
“Back then he had swearing tics,” Wolfe says. “He would come in my office and just let them all out. In class, he wanted to be like a normal kid. This was his safe place.”
Alvardo went from being a shy introvert with no friends to one of the most popular kids in school.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this building that I don’t know,” he says.
He’s determined to go to college and pursue a profession that will allow him to help other people like him.
“I know I want to do something medical because I want to help people — ever since I was little. I can help people because I know what they feel.”
Tourette’s isn’t the only stress Alvardo has in his life. His parents divorced when he was 9, and his father lives in Mexico.
“It’s really hard. I miss him a lot.”
But he has found comfort in the teachers and staff at W.T. White.
“You feel like you’re not alone.”
Doctors tell Alvardo that there’s a 75 percent chance that the Tourette’s will begin to fade away after he turns 18. He hopes that’s the case; however, he says that the disorder is a blessing and a curse.
“There were times when I felt like I just wanted to die … but if I didn’t have Tourette’s, I would have been a different person. I would have been some normal kid, some gangster or some jerk.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.