Miriam Antonio left her Koreatown apartment just past 6:30 Friday morning and walked in darkness to her bus stop on Wilshire Boulevard. It's a two-bus journey to Fairfax High School, where Antonio is an 18-year-old senior with a dream that seems tantalizingly within reach.
"I live with my Mom and two younger brothers...The four of us share a bedroom," says the draft of an essay she is writing as part of her college application to several University of California schools.
She writes of a neighborhood that "reeks with urine and alcohol," a place where she sometimes feels unsafe.
"I keep in mind that in order to be successful, we must be greater than what we suffer."
Antonio boarded a bus that was packed with people on their way to work, many of them standing and swaying as the vehicle lurched westward into the first light of day. She took a seat next to a middle-aged woman from Compton who said it takes her 90 minutes on two trains and a bus to get to her nursing job at the VA hospital.
In the narrative Antonio has been constructing for herself since middle school, she'll have an important, high-profile job one day. The cost of a college education will certainly be out of reach, but she'll get around that by earning a scholarship.
She will not lose focus despite having to tutor and care for her brothers while her mother, who works a graveyard shift as a janitor, is resting for the next shift. Nor will she be deterred by distractions like her parents' estrangement.
Antonio tells herself she will get through all that, complete her undergraduate work, go on to study constitutional law, enter politics, pull her family out of poverty and lift the hopes of those born into circumstances like the ones she has known since birth.
"My life has not been easy," Antonio says in her essay, "but I always keep in mind that it could be worse and that keeps me motivated to get through all the challenges and obstacles that I might face."
On the way to school, Antonio flipped through the last pages of a yellowed hard-bound copy of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," which a friend recommended. It's a book whose many great lines include, "The basis of optimism is sheer terror."
Antonio can relate. Her future is filled with possibilities, and she has to believe she can succeed. But she has her heart set on attending a top-tier university such as USC or UCLA, and she knows that getting accepted is no sure bet. Her grades are strong, but not spectacular, same as her SAT score.
What if she makes the cut, but doesn't earn a large enough scholarship to cover all the costs, even with student loans and a part-time job?
College, even for middle-class families, can be a crushing burden. Antonio's fallback plan is to go to community college, get a job, save money and transfer later to a great four-year-school. But after several years of imagining herself in a bigger dream, she can't let go of it.
"I feel like I've put a lot of hard work into preparing for this," said Antonio, and she was talking about more than schoolwork.
When I met her, in January, she was attending a forum for Los Angeles Unified school board candidates and leading a voter registration drive at her school. Now she heads a club focused on tamping down campus bullying and racism.
Summer was no break from being busy. Antonio went to a youth leadership conference in Washington, D.C., and began researching scholarship opportunities. She preaches the gospel of civic engagement as a member of the
"She's extremely self-taught and self-motivated and wants to give back to her family and her community," said Sara Mooney, a United Way mentor who is helping Antonio with her college applications. "I'm always so humbled by her."
Earlier this year, Antonio told me she admired Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez for addressing injustice in ways that made for lasting change.
But the hero in her life, she says, is her mother.
"She always wanted me to go to college. That's how she raised me.... She says, 'If you get into the university of your dreams, don't worry about money because we can always get loans.'"
Her mother, whose name is Araceli, works hard seven days a week, Antonio said, and she doesn't want to add to her mom's burdens. So she hasn't told her about the SAT prep courses she should probably take, if she gives the test one last try. That would be expensive, but her mother would say yes, of course, as she did when Antonio needed braces that weren't entirely covered by insurance.
Antonio still feels sick about having once begged her mother for money to go to a friend's birthday party at Six Flags. Of course her mother gave in, dipping into the small stash she keeps for emergencies or something nice, like a family trip to the movies.
Antonio hasn't told her mother about the $500 graduation package that includes tickets to the ceremony, graduation robe, photos and class trips. Her plan is to finish her college applications and then get a part-time job so she can pay for that herself.
I wonder, though, if these are things her mother already knows.
"I'm very proud of her," Araceli said in the family's small apartment, which they share with two relatives — six people, total, in a two-bedroom. The soft, late-afternoon light, streaming through the window, caught the tears that streaked Araceli's face as she spoke of her daughter's drive to do good and to do well.
With so much going on right now, Antonio is getting no more than five or six hours of sleep at night, but still likes to be up at 5:30 so she can get to school early, relax and review her notes before class. She's taking Advanced Placement statistics, Advanced Placement government and politics, honors English, French, physics and law, so the load is heavy.
I bumped into one of her teachers, Bonnie Robinson, and asked what kind of student Antonio is.
"The kind of student who comes in on the first day and sits in the front row so she doesn't miss anything," Robinson said.
The kind of student whose closing lines in a college application are these:
"I know I have high goals and aspirations but that's what pushes me to work hard. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf once said, 'If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.'"