For thousands of South Bay graduates who will get their junior and senior high school diplomas this week, the ceremony can be a boring rite of passage to be endured, not enjoyed--a mere prelude to that mad, mad night of parties, pranks and pleasures.
But when Hong Doan painfully inches forward with her walker tonight to get a junior high school diploma, everyone watching at Yukon Intermediate School in Hawthorne will know a special effort was required.
"It breaks your heart just to see her," said her principal, Michael Escalante.
Hawthorne's Hong Doan and graduating Torrance seniors Traci Kiyonaga, Karen Myers, Sara Guyan and Erik Estrada are all special students--part of the group of about 14,000 South Bay students with some sort of physical or mental disability.
Graduation for these is nothing to take for granted.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it," said Sara, 18.
In Hong's case, the disability is obvious: Her spine is bowed forward and her mind works at the second-grade level. At age 15, she is working through the 4s and the 5s of the multiplication table.
The Torrance youngsters have more subtle problems and many appear indistinguishable from students not needing special help.
Sara, for example, has dyslexia, a quirk of the brain that causes sufferers unpredictably to read letters reversed. She has had to work long hours to overcome it.
And Traci has an above-average intelligence but is deaf. She has had to learn lip reading and how to talk.
What unites all of them is a determination to overcome obstacles that has enabled them to learn with painstaking difficulty what others find easy.
Hong, who has the most to overcome of the five, has an indomitable spirit.
"You know," she once told her teacher, other kids "feel sorry for me but I don't feel sorry for me." She is looking forward to vocational training in high school. Escalante said that, with proper training, she may be able to work in a sheltered job designed for the physically and mentally handicapped.
Erik, 18, no relation to the television actor, came to Torrance High reading like a fifth grader. Now, by dint of strenuous effort, he reads at the seventh-grade level.
During the football season, that meant coming to school at 7 a.m. for special reading lessons, going through the regular school day and football practice, attending another special two-hour reading session, eating dinner, doing three hours of homework and, finally, going to sleep.
"I found it hard because I was tired sometimes, but I had to do it because I knew I had to do it," he said.
He will go to El Camino College in the fall where he will play football and study business. (In October, 1984, Erik's football prowess brought him instant school stardom when, with 14 seconds left in a game against archrival Culver City, he kicked a 22-yard goal for a 3-0 win and victory in the Ocean League.)
They have had to struggle against themselves.
Sara wonders "all the time" why she had to have dyslexia. She works through her feelings by thinking, "it's not that bad. Other people have had dyslexia, famous people. If they can make, so can I."
Traci said she sometimes becomes depressed thinking about being deaf but she shakes it off as being "no big thing" and then works even harder.
Hong's predicament has evoked a protectiveness among other students, according to her principal.
"She has almost become, not a mascot, but a symbol of decency," said Escalante. "I have never, never seen a kid be malicious to her. If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said, 'Hey, these kids will pick her apart,' but I have never seen a kid tease her or pick on her."
On the playground this week, Hong was the lap counter in the school's Go Far long-distance running program. "Congratulations, Hong," kids said as they ran by. She explained that she had just won a citizenship award. "I'm popular here," she said. "I have a lot of friends here."
The four from Torrance also have groups of friends, but, with the rubbed-raw sensitivity of adolescence, getting along with classmates has occasionally been harder.
"They didn't say anything," said Karen, who had a reading problem, "but you think that . . . "
"That they think you are dumb," finished Erik.
"Everyone looks at you. . . . It makes you feel bad," said Sara.
Some teachers in regular classes at times contribute to the problems of students with learning disabilities when they push the rest of the class along, leaving the special students further and further behind, according Lynn McFarland, who works with these students.
"This can be terribly frustrating. It has been tough on all of them," she said.
In addition to the students' determination and the special program, McFarland said that parental involvement is essential. "They have each had a lot of parental support."
"My mom pushed me," said Sara.
"I would have to study two to three times as much as the other kids," said Erik. "I would get help from my parents when I have an important test."
McFarland contends that graduates of special education sometimes are better prepared for life than students without learning or physical disabilities who have never had to put forth any special effort to get passing grades.
"They may not (have) as much academic skills as the next guy in line, but they have a lot of coping skills that help make them successful, productive people."
"Sometimes," said Barbara Davidson, another resource specialist, "they are only handicapped in school."
"I used to give up," said Sara. "Now I just go and do it because I know I can."