The first time I saw Jose Chojolan, there was no smile, and you could see in his eyes that there was no hope, either. He had been a soccer-loving kid who wanted to go to college one day, but his life took a tragic, entirely unexpected turn.
Jose had been sitting in 11th-grade English class at Fairfax High School in January 2012 when he felt sick. The teacher sent him to the nurse's office, and soon afterward, Jose underwent emergency surgery for a blood clot in his neck. He survived, but was paralyzed from the neck down.
Fairfax students, community leaders and good-hearted citizens rallied around their classmate, launching a string of fundraisers to help Jose's family cope with bills after his mother left her job to care for him.
Although he was appreciative, the 18-year-old was in shock and deeply depressed when I met with him two years ago. He said he didn't want to go back to Fairfax High because he couldn't bear to have friends see him so severely disabled. For the next year and a half, he convalesced at home, his future uncertain.
And then last week, I got a call from Jennie Jackson, one of Jose's favorite teachers at Fairfax. Jose returned to Fairfax last August, she told me, and on Thursday, he will be wearing a gown and sharing a stage with all the other graduates.
On Tuesday morning at Fairfax, I saw a much different young man than the one I remembered from two years ago. Now 20, Jose is still paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, but he had a smile on his face and he was wearing a T-shirt that said: "Only the Strong Survive."
In the very classroom where he had taken ill, we sat with teacher William Matis and Jose's brothers — Delfino and Daniel — and talked about how he fought back.
Daniel, 21, dropped out of
But Jose gradually grew out of that. He spent hours painting with a brush attached to his hat, and he used a computer with a wireless mouse-like device that he could activate with a nod. Jose said he began praying and going to church regularly, and his faith grew stronger.
"I felt like God was going to help me through it, and I started having hope for something," he said.
Jose said he hated being on a ventilator, and when he improved enough to breathe on his own day and night, one year into his recovery, it was something of a breakthrough psychologically.
"I didn't want to go to school with all that equipment and stuff," he said.
But even when he decided to return to school, Fairfax wasn't his first choice. He wanted to go to Los Angeles High.
Why? I asked.
"Because no one knows me over there," he said. "I'd be able to start all over…. I didn't want to see my friends or other kids I knew because I didn't want them to feel pity. I wanted to be normal again."
But his mother, brothers and sister tried to talk him into reconsidering Fairfax, where so many students had pulled for him. And maybe, too, Jose said, his family wanted him to confront his fears, come to terms with the past and try to move on.
The return to Fairfax was scary at first, but he soon grew to appreciate his family's insistence that it was the right school for him.
"Everyone here knows who Jose is and everyone has bought a shirt or hat or some memorabilia that says, 'Hang In There, Jose,' " Matis said. "It was great that he came back to this school and didn't go to another one that would have no memory of him."
Before Jose got sick, Matis said, he was a very good student. And that didn't change when he came back. Matis said he thought Jose identified with the themes of powerlessness and outside control in reading and writing about "1984" and "Brave New World," and Jose also studied Shakespeare and wrote about the event that changed his life.
Jose aced his homework, completed every assignment on time and never failed to impress, Matis said. And for that, he will be graduating with the Excellence in English Award.
"Jose's award is not for overcoming an obstacle," Matis said, making sure to clarify that point. "His award is for being an excellent student."
So what next?
The family is hoping to move into another home soon. All this time, they have been in a second-floor apartment with no elevator, and the family carries Jose up and down the stairs every day. Daniel, inspired by his brother's courage and grateful to have been one of his caretakers, is studying to become a nurse.
Jose plans to attend Los Angeles City College in the fall and later major in business at a UC or Cal State University, and then maybe work with Delfino — who held three jobs at one point to help the family through financial difficulties — to develop an apparel company that promotes goodwill.
Delfino told me that he will be the financial manager and Jose will be in charge of sales. "We're tired of seeing a lot of clothing lines promoting violence or sex or money or stuff like that," he said.
On Thursday evening, Jose will be wheeled across the stage by Daniel, with the rest of the family in the audience. He told me that he's going to miss Fairfax. I got the distinct notion that the feeling will be mutual.