Leaders transform school
Jeremiah Vasquez takes the stage at Skyview High School and begins a story. He asks the audience to imagine a boy living in poverty and constantly moving from place to place. Imagine a boy who stress eats and becomes obese. Imagine a boy who, at the age of 8, learns that his abusive, addicted father is leaving the family. Imagine a boy on the move again, this time into his grandmother’s garage with his mom and two sisters.
“A boy who is not tall, or thin or normal,” Vasquez says. The other kids tease him. The boy wishes for a new life, but he can’t tell his mom, because it would break her heart. And then he’s on the move again. This time to Washington. But the boy is still the same kid and he eats lunch in a bathroom stall and plays Pokémon.
Then things start to change for the boy. He loses weight, gets taller, talks more, goes out more. Lives more.
“That boy is me,” reveals Vasquez. It was the summer of his eighth-grade year. Vasquez resolves to change his life. He makes his first friend. “I was the one sitting next to the kids who thought they didn’t belong,” he said. “That year I found myself and decided to take control.”
Vasquez graduated from Skyview High School on June 10. He’s an accomplished flutist, and will attend college on a scholarship. His story, and others like it that unfold on the school’s stage, are the result of an event called Building Our Legacy Together, or BOLT. The event, which celebrates the diversity and courage of the people of Skyview High School, is the creation of the school’s leadership class. Teacher and adviser Meredith Wales started the elective class for juniors and seniors two years ago.
Leading by example
“Leadership students are encouraged to work toward making positive changes in the community and to be willing to take healthy risks,” said Wales.
For the leadership students, who start as strangers and range from highly involved to quiet and withdrawn, the class pushes them to work as a team. In addition to BOLT, which the students plan and organize from start to finish, the class incorporates exercises in peer mentoring, self-evaluation and skill-building. The students also partner with a youth suicide prevention program and network with adults in various industries.
Said Wales, “I work carefully at the start of the year to make sure our room has a constant commitment to respect. In our work, we look at many perspectives and work on being culturally responsive and inclusive within the school community. I think that if this is done well, and consistently, then it’s easier for students to understand that we’re all on the same team and that they are safe being exactly who they are in leadership class.”
Building a legacy
That respect and the ensuing trust emanate throughout the Skyview student body. This year, the April 26 BOLT event drew 29 participants who tried out or submitted draft essays for entry into one of the four presentations that were held throughout the day.
From an American Sign Language–interpreted song about diversity to a speech about mental illness, the topics and performances are as diverse as the people who share them. Throughout the event, students and staff members reveal their struggles, passions and dreams. Many of the narratives reflect journeys of hardship, loneliness or loss. All of them end with messages of inspiration, compassion and hope.
A nonverbal student with autism uses text-to-speech software to communicate his goals of being independent. Another student speaks about her journey of coming out. A Skyview custodian tells about surviving four years of slave labor and starvation as a teenager in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge communist regime and genocide.
“I hope that we continue being willing to put in the work to make our school, and local and global communities, a better place,” said Wales. “All that takes is for someone to step up, and I try to encourage all my students to take that risk, to pay kind deeds forward and to spread positivity and growth. Our class is a place for students to find their voice and their confidence, and then use that to spark something even greater.”
On stage, Vasquez challenges the audience, “We need to stop closing doors and start walking through them. Don’t lose that special something that makes you you. You’re unique—you’re one of a kind, you’re different from all of the rest. All of you,” he says. “I have made my mark. What about you?”