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For These Few, Graduation Is Night of Glory

Times Staff Writer

It was just another June night, inside one more vast and sweaty high school auditorium, which one more pianist was trying valiantly to fill with the chords of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Another graduation ceremony, seemingly lost among hundreds in Los Angeles.

But these 49 students, in the solemn splendor of rented red sateen robes, rustled down the twin aisles of Hollywood High’s auditorium on Thursday night, toward the crowning achievement of much more than 18 years of life: A high school diploma.

A Night of Glory

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Meet Hollywood High’s class of 1986, adult-school style. On the same campus where Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner once attended class, this was a night of glory for day laborers, grandmothers and immigrants.

- Marcial Mijangos, 42, a parking lot attendant and former dropout, whose friends teased him that he was “too old to go to school,” has decided to become a math teacher.

- Alicia Gonzalez, 26, a cleaning woman, who hopes to study computers, and whose 81-year-old grandmother came from El Salva dor just to see this; tonight, opening her wrinkled hands wide, the old woman said, “My heart feels this big.”

- Rafael Quinones, a lean-faced shipping clerk, the sole son among 13 daughters, would like to become a priest, “a good priest. I am 36 years old and I want to make something of myself.”

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- Tam Van Tranh, 33, drafted out of high school into the South Vietnamese Navy; when Saigon fell 11 years ago, he sailed his coastal patrol ship across the South China Sea to the Philippines, and at last came here, where now he hopes to become an electrical engineer.

- Julio Garcia, 29, a handyman who wants to be a bilingual teacher, arrived from Guatemala speaking not a syllable of English, with $50 and a relative’s address--the wrong one--in his pocket. On Thursday, he won a $200 scholarship, four times the amount of money he first came here with five years ago.

For Garcia and his mature classmates, this was the reward for 18-hour days, for dragging themselves to this community adult school, sacrificing four nights a week for several years, after their exhausting jobs, after feeding the kids, after doing the chores. Every hour they studied was an hour of sleep not slept, an hour of leisure not taken.

On Stage and Aglow

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At last, on Thursday night, they saw their names--names from a dozen nations--right there on the program. They marched onto a stage aglow in red and blue spotlights, and when some of them made speeches in their newly learned English, strangers applauded their words. Then, in the dazzling blue haze of flashbulbs, they were handed diplomas from an American high school.

“All of us here on this stage are feeling tremendous excitement,” said Mijangos, as the red and white tassel on his mortarboard swung against his serious round face and horn-rimmed glasses. “I will remember this graduation just as I remember my first kiss, my wedding day and my first-born son.”

For 90 minutes they sat, solemn and respectful, up on stage. There was none of the horseplay, the squirt-gun duels of teen-age graduations. Some of these people took hourlong bus rides to come to class after work, for three or four hours of study, and they had watched in polite dismay as students at the regular high school went racketing down the hallways, heedlessly throwing around books that would cost two hours’ wages.

“These kids in high school, they have it and just throw it away,” said adult school principal Penelope Pennington, in her first year there. “But these people, many have a job, a family, and yet they still do this. These people have given up five years of their lives for this.”

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Families Jubilant

But if they were stoic, their families were jubilant.

Mauricio Coreas had to struggle not to grin as he marched past his 4-year-old son, Juan Carlos, in white shirt and tiny clip-on bow tie. The boy bounced up and down on the chair seat, pointing and shrieking “Pop-eee! Pop-eee!” as Corea’s wife, Guadalupe, wept and snapped pictures. Come September, it will be her turn to go to this school.

Pennington, who knows the sacrifices that families made for this, ordered the house lights on so graduates could find “your support team” among 1,000 friends and relatives, some of them in spangled dresses or bright ties, others still in rough work clothes.

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In the front row, Tran’s wife, Sian, took frantic photos while their sons, 8-year-old Trung and 5-year-old Thinh, each in a three-piece suit, squirmed and waved at their father.

Ten-year-old Shana Moore had greeted her grandmother, Amanda Scott, with a prim little bow and a “Hello, Miss Graduate” that morning. Thursday night, she joined her aunt, Shirley Scott, in a two-person standing ovation to their graduate. Now the 56-year-old nursing assistant from Belize can try to become a nurse herself. “She worked so hard for this,” beamed her daughter. “There was one point when I thought she wouldn’t finish--but she did!”

Heading for College

Friends of class vice president Carlos Zepeda, including independent producer Helena Hacker, roared for his big moment. A tailor in the workrooms of Galanos, the designer whose multithousand-dollar gowns adorn Vogue models and Nancy Reagan, Carlos decided only in the last of his 14 years here to earn a diploma, so he could take college design courses.

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“He worked seven days a week to be here. I’m so proud--now he corrects my English!” said Hacker, embracing Zepeda and setting his designer glasses awry. “I keep thinking of my own high school graduation--tonight the people up there really wanted to be there.”

Rafael Caceres, whose friend videotaped his every measured step, came early to make sure that his mother got a good seat, and she settled in with her yellow Kleenex all ready. “He was so tired, he worked so hard, " she said, near tears before the ceremony began. Yes, said Caceres, “But now I have a diploma. I have reached something I didn’t imagine when I came to this country.”

During the ceremony, even the usual fusty cliches about hope and the future sounded fresh-minted and heartfelt; no one believes in the American dream like someone who had never had a dream at all.

Garcia, at first afraid to register for class because “even in my own country, speaking my own language, I can hardly get to sixth grade,” told the crowd that the diploma is “the reality of one of our greatest dreams. It is the first step we reach upon our ladder to success.”

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‘Most Important Thing’

Coreas, unable to write even in Spanish when he came here, said: “This is the most important thing that happened in my life. It is the first time I stayed with something.”

And from Mijangos: “Before this, I think I never was proud of myself. Now I am proud of myself. I am sure I can do it.”

This graduation is repeated every June, in each of the 32 community adult schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They offer senior citizen, English-language, handicapped and vocational courses, as well as this high school diploma program. “There’s a million stories out there,” Pennington said, “and every one of them is enough to really touch you.”

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The teachers collect the legendary tales of students, some older than they are, whose education and lives were interrupted by warfare or poverty or prison. They learn at their own schedule, dropping out for a new baby or a new job shift, then come back.

Hollywood’s adult teachers tell of the elderly Jewish woman who finally returned to school, and two months before graduation, as the woman lay dying of cancer, Dr. Kathleen Lucitt took her her diploma, a mortarboard and a bottle of Champagne. A young male prostitute kicked drugs and street life to graduate. An unkempt bag lady finally read her first sentence unaided--"The cat sat on the mat"--and came back the next day, bathed, combed and in clean clothes, her whole attitude turned around.

Nothing More Satisfying

“I’ve taught elementary through graduate school, and no job has ever been as satisfying as this one,” Lucitt said.

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The admiration is mutual. “We have wonderful teachers,” Quinones said. “When you come to school, you think you are going to have a wonderful time learning.”

Although these older students must pass the same state-required tests as do teen-agers, the curriculum is different: In math class, they may study their own paycheck stubs. Their English essays are not about pets or vacations, but “The Reasons Why I Left My Country,” harrowing accounts in new and childlike English about a countryside stalked by soldiers or starvation.

But finally, Thursday night, it was the future, not the past, that caught them up in excitement, and their on-stage decorum dissolved into delight. They hugged, they kissed, they mugged for pictures on the auditorium steps. Coreas’ relatives passed his white folder among them, running their fingertips lightly over the gold Gothic letters, “Los Angeles Unified School District.”

Careful of Diplomas

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Later, after cake and coffee in the gymnasium, webbed with the school colors of red and white crepe paper to match the cakes’ frosting, they slung their weary children over their shoulders, and began to drift home, the diploma folders kept out of reach of little icing-covered hands.

Garcia will photocopy his to send to Guatemala. “I wish I had my mother here,” he said wistfully. “It would be like a present. I wish I had the opportunity to tell everybody, ‘Here is the prize for hard work.’ ”

He put his arm around his wife, pregnant with their second child.

“Material things, somebody can steal them. But a good education, you can’t ever lose it.”

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