Can't keep him down

HB Independent

A lot can happen in four years.

That's the overriding message we got when interviewing nine members of the 2010 graduating class from various campuses in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. Some students shoot out of the gate, while others start in trouble and finish on top. Some find mentors along the way; others learn to push themselves.

High school amounts to about 5% of a typical life span, but during those eventful years between the end of eighth grade and adulthood, it feels like much more than that. The choices we make and the experiences we have shape who we become as adults. The relationships we form, whether with classmates or faculty, may last a lifetime.

Each of Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley's graduating seniors followed a different path to commencement. But next week, their stories should all end the same way: with a diploma.

LUKE GANE

Playing football at Edison High School meant a lot to senior Luke Gane, but after missing football season and half of his junior year, being back on the field was more meaningful than ever.

The 18-year-old was diagnosed with a rare disease, aplastic anemia, and spent several months in the hospital going through chemotherapy and eventually a bone marrow transplant.

Going from a healthy high school student to one fighting his own immune system didn’t make him scared or angry — he trusted in God’s plan. The real "heartache" was not being on the field with his brothers on the football team.

Putting back on the uniform and returning to the football stadium with the smell of the field and the lights shining down on him was a big moment.

"To miss those 10 games and then to come back is truly indescribable," he said.

Despite missing several months of school, Gane returned as a starter and kept up the grades and athleticism needed to earn himself a spot at UCLA and a walk-on spot on the football team.

The experience has made Gane want to help others through a career in the medical field. .

-- Britney Barnes

 BRANDON CASTAGNA

Brandon Castagna learned to pick up the tempo when he joined the Marina High School choir his junior year.

The 18-year-old had mostly skimped on studies as a freshman and sophomore, preferring to hang out with his friends than prepare for college. When he signed up for music teacher Eric Graham’s class, though, Castagna got more than just a group to complement his tenor.

He got the incentive he needed to become a top student. His last two years, while attending night school to make up lost credits, Castagna rose at 6 every morning, appeared in two school musicals and even played backup quarterback for the varsity football team. He gives a lot of credit to Graham, whom he described as an inspiration, and to his fellow choir members.

"The energy I got in choir helped me so much academically," Castagna said. "It was just the best. I had a study group, and it was the people I sang with."

Now, Castagna plans to attend Orange Coast College in the fall before transferring to a four-year university.

-- Michael Miller

LAUREN GARCIA 

Last month, Lauren Garcia found herself in a spot she never would have imagined a year or two ago — finishing high school early.

The 17-year-old started strongly at Fountain Valley High School, acting in school plays and singing with the choir her freshman year. Afterward, by her own admission, she fell in with the wrong crowd, got in trouble and watched her grades slip.

By the second semester of her junior year, the Huntington Beach resident had hit bottom, to the point where she often felt too depressed to get out of bed. Rather than try to make up her lost credits at Fountain Valley, she opted for Coast High School, the district’s independent-studies campus.

"It was a real low point of my life," Lauren said. "Then I went to Coast and got everything together."

At Coast, Lauren attended classes every Friday and studied in her bedroom the rest of the week, raising her grade-point average to nearly 4.0 and completing her last units a few weeks before the deadline. She plans to attend Orange Coast College in the fall and pursue an acting or singing career.

"Being on Broadway in New York would be a dream come true," she said.

-- Michael Miller

KATHRYN GASPARRO 

Kathryn Gasparro served as president of her junior and senior classes at Fountain Valley High School — and in between, she came close to rubbing elbows with President Obama.

Last summer, Gasparro ventured to Washington, D.C. to receive the Congressional Award Gold Medal, which Congress gives every year to 14- to 23-year-olds who have excelled in volunteerism, personal development, physical fitness and exploration.

The 18-year-old had taken 200 hours of dance for physical fitness, played the oboe for personal development and fulfilled exploration by going to Australia as a student ambassador.

It was for her volunteer work, though, that her school may remember her best. As a sophomore, Gasparro founded Fountain Valley High’s Pink Ribbon Club, which raises money to fight breast cancer. She also served as a summer intern for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Gasparro said she was accepted to numerous colleges, but opted for Clemson University in South Carolina, where she plans to major in civil engineering and minor in international relations.

"Fountain Valley High School was the perfect place for me to flourish, and I am so thankful for how many opportunities I was afforded and everyone who played a part in my success," Gasparro said.

-- Michael Miller

CURTIS GONZALEZ 

Curtis Gonzalez found out he wasn’t going to graduate on time his junior year.

The senior said he was bored with school and ditching Ocean View High School all the time. He was sent to talk to the principal of Valley Vista High School, who told him he didn’t have enough credits to graduate.

"It was definitely an eye-opener," he said. "I realized how much time I’ve wasted."

He decided to transfer to Valley not only caught up on credits, but got ahead. He was given the option to transfer back to Ocean View, but decided against it.

The smaller class sizes and more personal experience has cured Gonzalez of his boredom.

He plans to attend Fullerton College and transfer to San Diego State University to get his bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

Gonzalez wants to come back to high school to teach freshman algebra, his favorite subject, and he hopes it will be a chance to help students avoid making the mistakes he did.

"I’m glad I caught myself before it was too late," he said.

-- Britney Barnes

JENNIFER MURDOCK

Jennifer Murdock has a big change coming to her when she attends college this fall: namely, her first new school in 13 years.

The salutatorian at Liberty Christian School started at the private campus in kindergarten and remained there through the 12th grade. A few of the people she’ll graduate with tonight also stuck it out the entire way — though even the ones who joined in later years feel like family by now.

So Murdock, 17, didn’t have to deal with the typical freshman agony of getting used to a new campus and a crowd of strangers. By her own admission, though, she was often shy when she started the ninth grade. Over the next four years, she overcame that as she signed up for the cheer squad, acted in plays and did community service with a campus club.

This fall, she plans to attend Biola University and study business. She’s excited to move on, but sad to leave her Liberty Christian family behind.

"I’ve known them forever," she said. "But our whole class now is really close, and we’re all really good friends."

-- Michael Miller

MICHAEL PLACE

It took Michael Place four years to finish an entire year at Ocean View High School.

The Alaska native had a rough time before enrolling at Ocean View, losing both of his parents and bouncing from one family member’s home to another. During his first three years of high school, he landed in juvenile hall four times and often had to spend semesters at Valley Vista High School, the district’s continuation campus, before he could return to Ocean View.

By his senior year, though, the 18-year-old vowed to change his ways. Over the last nine months, Place hit the books, played junior varsity football, studied martial arts. He was proud to complete a year at the same campus, he said, but felt frustrated by the lost time.

Now, Place hopes to attend Orange Coast College, transfer to Cal State Long Beach and become an entrepreneur in real estate. When asked who inspired him most during high school, he had a ready answer.

"All of my teachers and all of the faculty," Place said. "If it wasn’t for Ocean View, I wouldn’t be where I am now."

-- Michael Miller

PERLA VIDAL

Perla Vidal didn’t grow up being told she was going to attend college, but the 18-year-old will soon be the first in her family to attend.

Vidal never thought about college until her freshman year, when she was introduced to the Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID program, which helps students go to college.

Barely passing her classes, she couldn’t get into the program immediately, but after readjusting her academic attitude, was accepted her junior and senior year.

She wants to set the example for her cousins, nieces and nephews to make sure they go to college and help them wade through the complicated admissions process.

"They know I’m doing it as much for them as I am for me," she said.

Vidal plans on studying medicine to become a pediatrician to do missionary work in Spanish-speaking countries.

Growing up with parents with only basic English comprehension, Vidal said she knows the difficulties of being unable to fully communicate with others.

"I love helping people when they can’t help themselves and making a difference in that small way," she said.

-- Britney Barnes

AUSTIN WENGER 

Austin Wenger is graduating high school with a basketball scholarship to Colorado Christian University, but growing up, athletics looked like they might be out of the picture.

The 18-year-old was born with dyslexia, and a doctor advised his mother that organized sports might be too stressful for him. Despite the prediction, Wenger has been playing basketball for almost a decade.

"I think I proved it wrong," Wenger said. "I think I overcame [dyslexia]."

Wenger attended a private school specializing in learning disorders for part of elementary school. He no longer has problems in the classroom or on the court.

The 6-foot, 4-inch student played varsity basketball all four years of high school and on a club team while keeping his grades up. Wenger said it has been a sacrifice, but it’s what he loves.

"It’s always just been a passion and hobby of mine," he said.

Wenger said he wants to continue sports and major in biology for a career in sports medicine or chiropractic.

"I just like to work with people and help people," he said.

-- Britney Barnes

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