When I was asked to speak at the Aviva High graduation, my marching orders were clear: Offer a little wisdom and loads of encouragement. These girls had been through a lot.
There were only five students in the graduating class. One didn't show up.
Aviva educates teenage girls who need emotional or behavioral support. The ceremony was held in Hollywood, at Temple Israel. In the audience, a smattering of family members sat in folding chairs alongside teachers, counselors and friends.
I took the stage and spoke about the typical commencement ideals: Face your fears, trust your heart, don't give up easily.
Then each girl walked up to get her diploma and deliver her own graduation speech. I realized how inadequate my bromides had been.
Their essays were confessionals of all they had battled:
Andrea was "a train wreck of a person" by the time she reached her teens. She was raised by an alcoholic woman who was physically and emotionally abusive. She had moved through a series of foster homes and ditched school so often that she was failing all her classes. Everyone she loved seemed to die or run off.
Diana had spent her childhood "hopping between foster homes because families could not tolerate my bad behavior." She was angry and volatile, always fighting and mouthing off. By middle school, she was using drugs and alcohol; life seemed bearable only when she was high.
Davanna's mother and father were in jail when she was born. Her paternal grandma took her in but couldn't keep her safe. She was bullied and beaten by classmates and began to harm herself. She was in and out of mental hospitals and group homes. "At each one, I became tougher and less afraid, which was not a good thing," she said. "My motto was 'Get them before they get you.'" When she gave a roommate a concussion, she wound up in juvenile hall.
Pamela had been assaulted when she was very young and was afraid to tell anyone. Her pain turned to anger and self-loathing. In middle school, she threatened to kill other people and tried to kill herself. When she came to Aviva, she wouldn't speak or socialize. She could barely read or write.
On Friday, she sobbed at the podium as she walked us through the changes in her life. "I've chosen to confront my fears," she read from her essay. "I want to have a good future.... I want to help children get a good education."
She thanked her teachers, one by one, for helping her to read, pushing her to finish her work, introducing her to other cultures and just "being there for me."
There was a hint of that sentiment in every speech: "Thanks for being there for me."
It made me think of what gets lost when we talk about things high schoolers need: tougher math, more AP classes, better counseling.
Those things are important, but so is the sense that someone knows you as more than a mark on an attendance chart or a score on a final exam.
That's what Aviva High provides for girls who've been locked up, kicked out and labeled as failures. The school is part of a network of counseling and mental health programs run by Aviva Family and Children's Services, a 100-year-old nonprofit agency.
"Our teachers and counselors know the path to success is not always a straight line upward," said Regina Bette, Aviva's president. "That means giving them chances and not giving up on them because they didn't follow the rules, they cussed out a teacher, they got drunk again."
The classes are small, and the teachers are sensitive enough to know when a student's meltdown is a discipline issue and when it's a cry for help.
"It's not easy for the staff," Bette said. "But they've seen it over and over again: You keep working with the girls and wait until that moment when it sticks."
Sometimes that wait can be very long, as Davanna made clear:
"I would like to end my speech by thanking Aviva staff for tolerating me; my favorite teacher, Kim Donner, for being understanding and kind. I would especially like to thank Mr. [Milton] Brown for taking me back all three times and not giving up on me even when you felt I wasn't listening.
"I was always listening."
The graduates' essays reflected more than the horror of damaged childhoods.
I could hear the lessons they'd learned through their struggles, and feel the power of their resiliency. I was struck by how much they loved their parents, even if those parents had neglected or abandoned them.
And by how hard they are working to learn to love themselves.
"Mom, you have been through so much for me, and I know you have struggled with me a lot," said Diana, locking eyes with her mother in the audience. "I'm sorry for everything I have ever done. My intentions were never to hurt you. I feel like just yesterday, you were dressing me up for the first day of school."
I silently thanked Diana on behalf of every mother who has ushered a daughter through the storms of adolescence.
At 19, she's realized that "life isn't easy, but it is worth fighting for." She's sober and healthy, wise beyond her years and hopes to join the Air Force and become a mechanical engineer.
"I am thankful for every bad choice I ever made and every person that was put in my path to give me a hard time," she told the graduation crowd. She wouldn't have changed her self-destructive ways if people hadn't cared enough to keep trying to stop her.
"I made many mistakes, but those same mistakes have made me the person I am today," she said, as heads nodded and people in the audience applauded. "Now it's time to prove to everyone — including myself — that I can make something of my life."