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Roger's journey: from homeless to graduate at 57

The diminutive man with the grizzled beard stood out amid the sea of caps and gowns at Thursday's graduation ceremony like a blackbird in a snowbank.

Older than most of the graduates by two decades, he was one of only 18 adult education students in a field of 211 to wear the gold cord of an honors graduate.

The anteroom at Ruth Eckerd Hall hummed with chatter as he sat silent and alone, seemingly lost in thought.

"I feel like I'm someplace else watching myself," he murmured, folding and unfolding his name card as the group surged toward Portal 13.

The graduates entered the hall to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance. The audience went wild.

But no mother or father, no brother or sister, no spouse or even friend cheered for Roger Laracuente.

"I guess that's a bridge I burned," he said. "I have to build it up again. I know it won't happen overnight."

• • •

Laracuente, 57, has come a long way.

After living on the streets of Los Angeles and St. Petersburg for two years, he enrolled in the Pinellas County School District's adult education program in June 2007. His teacher, Gary Bond, patiently tutored him throughout the summer and fall in science and math, reading and social studies.

Bond also encouraged him to try out for a holiday bell ringer job with the Salvation Army. As Laracuente was preparing to take the GED test last winter, he was banking his paychecks and compiling a resume.

In January, the owner of Big Fish Company Signs and Designs in St. Petersburg offered Laracuente a job — and a place to live.

"I thought, 'Here's somebody who's not looking for someone to hand him his life on a silver platter,' " Carrie Renner said.

In most ways, Laracuente has been both a model employee and a model tenant, Renner said.

He works hard and frequently needs to be reminded to take a lunch break. He bought a Weedwhacker at a garage sale, and on a recent Saturday, Renner found her meticulous renter on his hands and knees edging a walkway with a kitchen knife.

But things aren't perfect.

Laracuente doesn't respond well to criticism, Renner said. He's overly sensitive when she tries to coach him and sometimes argues with the other employees. And then, just as quickly as a situation arises, it blows over.

Laracuente knows he can be trying.

He realizes that although he's no longer homeless, he still thinks like a homeless person. After carrying his possessions around in a backpack for so long, he's hesitant to buy so much as a new pair of shoes.

And after distrusting people for so long, he's wary of getting too close to anyone, even those who reach out to him.

"The last friend I had was in 1979," he said. "I really can't imagine having any friends now."

• • •

Laracuente says his saving grace is that he doesn't drink or take drugs. But he has other demons.

He told Bond that he suffers from spinal arthritis and Tourette's syndrome and that he has compulsive tendencies. So far, he has resisted suggestions that he take medication.

"I'm still trying to prove that if you fix life, you won't be depressed," he said. "But I'm starting to see that maybe I could be wrong."

He tries to stay positive by being of service to others. He spends part of his salary on bus passes and cheap wristwatches that he distributes to the homeless, a remedy he says the Bible recommends.

Sometimes his good intentions backfire. About three months ago, a homeless man he had befriended showed up at his house in southern St. Petersburg in the middle of the night demanding money.

"He pushed a gun into my chest and said, 'We can do this the easy way or the hard way,' " Laracuente said. "I gave him the money."

He feels no anger toward homeless people who deride him now that he's getting back on his feet; nor does he feel guilty for his success because he has worked hard for it.

Those who refuse the services that are offered to them are "choosing to stay out of society," he says while acknowledging his ambivalence toward expanding the confines of his own small world.

Five days a week, he pedals the same 45-minute route to his job. Two nights a week, he attends a computer keyboard class at Tomlinson Adult Education Center.

When he's not at work or at school, he sits alone in his still-unfurnished house, watching TV.

Renner, his boss, worries about him.

"It's like he wants to fit in but not really," she says.

• • •

Laracuente almost didn't attend the district's countywide graduation ceremony. He didn't tell anyone about it, not even Renner.

"I should have done this in 1968," he said Thursday night. "Part of me is saying, 'Good job.' Most of me is saying, 'It's about time.' "

An hour later, he was listening closely as Pinellas deputy superintendent Harry Brown spoke to the graduates.

Too many people focus on the past or look for fulfillment in the future, Brown said. He urged them to focus instead on the here and now.

When it was over and Laracuente had moved the white tassel on his mortarboard from one side to the other, he walked out into the twilight feeling a little lighter, a little more hopeful.

>>TO LEARN MORE

From the streets

For our first article on Laracuente, go to www.links.tampabay.com.

Roger's journey: from homeless to graduate at 57 08/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 4:06pm]

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