Stephanie Krol's memories of her earliest years are blessedly spare and remarkably benign.
She remembers going back and forth between foster care and street life with her mother, who was homeless and often resorted to prostitution. She remembers being separated from her siblings, shuffled among strangers and unfamiliar homes. She remembers attending three different schools by the time she was 6.
But mostly she remembers the kind art teacher who went out of her way to give a lonely little first-grade girl a chance to shine — and wound up changing both of their lives.
That was more than 20 years ago, but that art teacher still remembers how Stephanie lit up when she was chosen to pose in front of the class for a drawing assignment.
"She was so lively, so delightful," recalled Lorraine Krol, who is retired now. "I joked to her teacher 'She's so cute, I'd like to take her home.' Then the teacher told me she was in foster care and about to be put up for adoption."
The little girl's need for a mother meshed with the teacher's longing for a child.
Divorced and childless, Lorraine, then 37, had already begun the approval process required for adoption. Social workers allowed Stephanie to join her for weekend outings and overnight stays.
Months later, Stephanie crammed all her belongings into two shopping bags and moved in with her teacher in Ramona, a small town in San Diego County. "I remember being so excited," she said. "I could go home to the same place every night. I had a bedroom to myself."
In 1994, when Stephanie was 8, the adoption was final and they became mother and daughter.
On Friday, that mother will be in the audience with hundreds of proud parents, as her daughter receives her juris doctor degree from USC's Gould School of Law.
Lorraine insists that her daughter showed up hard-wired for success: "I never really had to make her study," she said. "She's always been very driven to succeed and make something of herself."
Stephanie, 27, a graduate of UC Berkeley, thinks her mother deserves much of the credit. "I know I have this latent need to do my best. But my determination comes from her," she said. "I also have her stubbornness."
As an attorney, she plans to specialize in child welfare; she has already spent years as a volunteer advocate for foster children. "There's so much tumult and instability in foster care," she said. "I don't think people realize how much it helps to know there's someone on your side."
She has seen teenagers booted from their homes after disagreements with their foster mothers. "You have no one to help hold the pieces together, no one to keep you grounded," she said. "My mom made sure I had that."
Fewer than 5% of former foster children manage to finish college. Stephanie fared better than her three siblings, who did not land in such supportive homes.
Her adoption still seems to her like a remarkable leap of faith by a virtual stranger. "I know it wasn't easy, being willing to take on a full little person — not a baby you can shape — and just hope that she comes out OK.
"There are so many kids in the system. And I got lucky because my art teacher thought I was adorable."
Adorable, but difficult too.
The chaos of her early life had left Stephanie angry, insecure and prone to acting out. In elementary school, where her mother was still the art teacher, she swung between cocky and terrified. "Sometimes I'd get in trouble at home and she'd still be mad at me in class," she recalled.
But she also knew that her mother would always have her back.
A few classmates shunned Stephanie when they learned about her past. "One mother worried that she came from a 'dark' background and something might rub off on her son," Lorraine recalled. "I had to be the advocate with other teachers and parents."
Lorraine found the learning curve of parenting unexpectedly steep. A wrong move in a game of "Candyland" could set her daughter off: "She'd have a tantrum, a tirade, get so upset.... She was crying and I didn't know what to do."
They relied for help on therapy and their Catholic faith. But mostly they drew on the bond they were building day by day, year after year.
Together they hiked the Grand Canyon, skied in Northern California and camped every summer at Lake Michigan with cousins, uncles and aunts. Stephanie took swimming lessons, joined the Girl Scouts and became a soccer star. She wasn't much good in art, but her mother saved every project she created. And when she declared "movie star" her career choice, her mother enrolled her in acting camp for a reality check.
"I didn't like having to compete with all the other kids who wanted the same part," Stephanie admitted. "My mom insisted that I have a backup plan. I settled on lawyer because I'm very good at arguing."
She's also very good at standing up for castoff children because she understands how important it is for every child to have someone who won't let them be lost.