School’s done for most Colorado kids. Report cards are out, and graduates are starting their next phase in life.
Graduation was especially meaningful for one Denver senior, whom CPR profiled earlier in the year. 18-year-old was Dajina Bell was on the verge of flunking out.
We told her story as part of our “Losing Ground” series with I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS.
We caught up with her at her graduation ceremony recently, and it was a chance to find out how she turned things around. She’s sitting outside the auditorium where she’ll graduate in a few minutes. She’s wearing a white satin graduation robe and a cap.
“It feels surreal. I don’t know. It hasn’t really hit me yet,” she said.
She’s in a bit of a state of disbelief.
“I feel like I’m in third person,” Dajina said. “Like I’m not here. Like I feel like once I cross that stage and get that diploma in my hand, I will be satisfied. I’m not satisfied now.”
That’s because the journey has been on has been a tough one. In December, she told us her G.P.A. was about 1.7.
“That’s not what I want for myself, that’s not what I imagined,” she said tearfully.
As a kid, Dajina loved to read. She had big dreams for herself. And then, in 9th grade, her older brother, Cedric was shot and killed.
“I didn't want to come to school,” said Dajina, crying. “I didn't like anybody. I was mean. It was just a lot of things that progressed from there. I hated everybody.”
The family struggled. They didn't have a lot of money. At one point, they didn't even have a place to live. Dajina was getting straight “Fs” when she arrived this year at Vista Academy, a small alternative high school in Denver that’s the last stop for many struggling students. She had a lot of ground to make up. But her mom, Felicia Williams, kept pushing her.
“I just kept telling her my story," mother Williams said. "Be different than me, do different than me.”
As a teen mom, Williams dropped out of high school in 11th grade. By 22, she had four children. And this weighed on Dajina: she’d be the first graduate in the family. Williams kept telling her daughter she didn’t want her to be another statistic.
“Her brothers didn’t graduate,” said Williams. “I just kept telling her you can do it, you can do it. I told her it's light at the end of the tunnel. There’s always light. We just kept praying and kept faith, and she just kept holding on, and she did it. She did it.”
Now, she’s getting ready to march into the auditorium with her fellow graduates, dressed in her brand new fancy shoes.
“OK, so I have heels!” she exclaimed. “They are the BOMB!”
They’re covered in tiny blue, green, yellow, and pink rhinestones, and they have very high heels. This, after all, is a very special day. Especially for her mom.
“Like I’m giving birth all over again,” Williams laughed. “That’s how I feel.”
Dajina’s entire family takes up a couple of rows - uncles, brothers, her grandma and grandpa, friends. The students march into the auditorium to “Pomp and Circumstance.”
But Dajina’s graduation march is just the start. She’s been accepted to the Community College of Aurora. The big unknown was how she would pay for it; but one day, one of her teachers said he had big news. An anonymous donor who had heard her story on CPR stepped forward and set up a scholarship in her name.
“When I saw it I just cried because I was so happy,” Dajina said, still tearful as she remembers. “I thought, 'really?'”
It will leave her with money when she’s ready to transfer to a four-year college.
Back at graduation, Dajina and her classmates listen intently to the opening words of her principal's speech. They resonate deeply.
“No matter how much you have been beaten down or told you would not make it or not amount to anything,” said Principal Rhonda Juett, “you kept going no matter what. You were relentless in your pursuit of an education.”
When Dajina’s name is announced and she walks across the stage, the screams from her family are positively cathartic. They continue as the night goes on, as the family showers Dajina with gifts, topped off with a limo ride at the end the evening.
Next year, Dajina Bell will head off to community college and take courses to become a paralegal. But she has a longer term goal.
“I’ll be 27, when I graduate from law school,” she said.
Dajina’s voice softens at the end of that sentence, like she can hardly believe she’s saying it. She takes a minute to think when I ask her how she wants to feel in the future.
“Successful,” she said. “I want to feel like I did something. Like I’m worth something, you know?”