SAN ANTONIO — Damarcus Hopkins and his reading teacher, Carmen Simpson, never expected their lives to intertwine so closely when they first crossed paths at Tampa's Wharton High School in 2005.
"I did not like teachers," said Damarcus, 19. "I disrespected them and I always had an opinion for everything they said."
Simpson recalled Damarcus as being so difficult that she decided to take a new job in Pasco County schools.
"I was so glad to be going to Pasco County. I was getting away from Damarcus," she said. "Damarcus was one of the biggest challenges for me."
She moved to Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel.
Unbeknownst to Simpson, so, too, did Damarcus.
Each was seeking a new start. They found it together.
Simpson saw the teen's appearance in her new classroom as a message from on high that she needed to do more for him. His family life had been tough, bouncing from home to home, relative to relative, with little stability except for his love of and excellence in art.
After refusing to listen or care, Damarcus got the message when Simpson cut to the chase: Shape up or face life on the outside, going nowhere with no one left to help.
"I started going to school. I started doing my work. I signed myself up for extra classes," he said. "I did not want to be a nobody."
He raised his grade point average from below 1.5 to above 3.0, and he's headed to International Academy of Design and Technology after graduation.
Damarcus nervously spoke of his new world view Tuesday afternoon at the school district's annual Project Turnaround award luncheon, winning hearty applause from the crowd of fellow students, teachers and parents who came to celebrate 31 kids who had changed their lives for the better.
The honored students ran the gamut from girls who dealt with the struggles of teen parenthood to boys who grappled with finding their way in new, big schools where they felt anonymous. Some just needed a little push to succeed, while others required a swift kick to get their acts together.
Antonio Rivera said he stopped trying hard in school and started making bad grades after moving this year from Bartels Middle School in Tampa to Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel. The transition to the 1,700-student school was rough for the soft-spoken eighth-grader who's mostly in gifted classes.
After a while, he said, "I talked to people and I made a friend. ... . It made it easier. I didn't feel lonely."
And his performance improved, to the relief of his mom and his teachers.
Nashyia Griffin, 15, said she needed to find some new friends if she wanted to get on the right path.
"I was just hanging around with friends and not thinking about my school work," she said of her freshman year at Mitchell High.
After moving to Anclote High this year, "I started hanging out with the right group of people. ... And I've been working pretty hard."
She and many of the honored students beamed as their teachers heaped praise on them for all their efforts to make it. In return, the youngsters returned the compliments.
Hudson High School senior Megan Lisco, holding her 2-year-old son Tanner, tearfully thanked her counselor and parents for helping her make it from a scared pregnant girl to the brink of graduation. "Thank you so much, everyone who stood by me," she said before choking up and walking off stage.
"My mom is probably the only reason I'm not failing my classes," said Michael McLaughlin, a River Ridge Middle School eighth-grader who used to get in trouble for fighting and acting out in class. "Also my teachers. They help me a lot too."
These successes make the difference to these educators, who bragged on their students so proudly. Just ask Carmen Simpson, who admits she nearly left teaching after giving up on Damarcus only to find renewal in his return to her classroom.
She said she felt rewarded in being able to see Damarcus mature into a motivated, determined leader. He taught her not to give up, as much as she taught him the same.
And for that, they both are grateful.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.