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To walk at graduation, she had to stop running with the wrong crowd

ST. PETERSBURG

Legs outstretched, she sat against the couch's arm with a hardcover book open in her lap.

"Elementary Statistics," it said on the front. "A Step by Step Approach."

"This stuff doesn't even look that hard," she said, trying to convince herself that was true.

Monica Scruggs, 19, was an hour from taking the last test she needed to graduate from Lakewood High School. It was her second time trying. The year before, as a senior, she had failed.

Once in honors classes, her dream of college vanished. Monica couldn't get a job, even at fast-food joints. She suspected people thought less of her, and she feared that one day her young daughter might, too.

The fault, Monica acknowledged, was her own. She had ignored homework, gotten in fights and skipped countless classes. "I had a bad attitude," she said.

But there she was, on her couch, studying for the moment that could redeem it all.

As 6 p.m. approached, she went upstairs to slip on a pink Lakewood T-shirt. Her 21-month-old daughter's toys were piled in one corner of the bedroom, and stuck to the walls and mirror were pictures of friends she was supposed to have graduated alongside. A pair of middle-school sports trophies reminded her that, once, she had accomplished something.

Inside the school, she walked through deserted hallways, ignoring signs for the Arabian Nights-themed prom. She wasn't going. The tickets cost $60 each, and Monica still hoped she would need money for a graduation gown.

Diana Keller, a math teacher who had become her unofficial tutor, was waiting. She told Monica she had to score at least an 80, 10 points higher than she had expected. Monica got quiet.

Keller told her the test wasn't hard. Be confident.

Monica, her breaths shortening, didn't look confident.

"You ready?" asked Keller.

"Yep," Monica said, just above a whisper.

"Okay. Let's go."

• • •

It was an early morning in May 2013 when Lakewood's guidance counselor, Veronica Pruitt, called her out of class.

Pruitt broke the news: Monica wouldn't graduate. The teen's eyes welled. She walked out and sat for hours at a park bench down the road.

She had been a well-behaved, studious kid until high school, when she and two friends decided it wasn't cool to be well behaved and studious.

Her mom had gotten a job working nights, and though she still occasionally saw her father, he didn't live with them. Monica spent hours alone and bored.

The summer before their freshman year, the girls stole one of their parents' cars almost every night. They would go to the Pier or drive through McDonald's and get ice cream cones. They called themselves "Thug Life."

Monica made the cheerleading team that year, but her mother couldn't afford the uniform. She began to get in trouble for breaking dress code and skipping classes. One day, Keller spotted the girls climbing a chain-link fence. Monica, at its top, looked back and smiled.

"Hey, Ms. Keller," she said. "See you tomorrow."

The next year, tired of wearing old middle-school clothes, the girls went on a shoplifting spree. Arms weighted with merchandise, they got caught at a bus stop outside a local Marshall's.

As juniors, a violent fight led to their arrests. Monica later did community service and went to a gang-prevention class.

Three weeks after the brawl, Monica learned that she was pregnant. The baby, Jessiyah, came at 32 weeks, weighing fewer than 4 pounds. An emergency C-section kept Monica in the hospital for a week.

She fell further behind.

Around Christmas, she said, a teacher shamed her in front of a group of students: "I'll see you again next year." Her attitude got worse. She skipped more classes.

The day she should have graduated, Monica turned off her cellphone and computer. She couldn't bear to see the Facebook posts and photos. Like so many other teenagers, but for a different reason, Monica got drunk that night.

That summer, she applied everywhere: Walmart, Dunkin' Donuts, Publix. She even looked to Craigslist. She saw friends go off to college. She struggled to sleep, imagining the things she would never be able to buy for her daughter.

Monica returned to school determined and desperate, but her old teachers, unsure that she had changed, didn't want to work with her.

Assistant principal Harriet Davis, who had convinced Monica she was too smart to settle for the General Educational Development test, pleaded with Keller. She agreed to take a chance.

"As a high school teacher, you're around kids all the time that just make bad choices," Keller said. "Until they give up on themselves, I'm not going to give up on them."

• • •

It was time.

For just longer than an hour, she had sat in front of a computer near a wall of inspirational posters: "POSITIVE ATTITUDE: It changes everything"; "OPPORTUNITIES: Make your own."

Over the course of the school year, Monica had already made up chemistry, earth science, government, geometry and English. She went to school morning and night, finding friends and family to watch her daughter when she couldn't. At home, she often studied with the baby in one arm and a book in the other.

Now, just one score remained.

Her hand hovered over the mouse, but she couldn't push the submit button. Keller put her arms around Monica's shoulders.

"C'mon," Keller said. "Click it."

Monica closed her eyes and pressed. The screen loaded.

"Your Score: 86.67."

"Yay!" she yelled.

They hugged.

"I want to stand on the table and dance."

Keller blinked water from her eyes. Monica told her not to make her cry.

The next morning, Monica woke up just after sunrise. She rushed to tell Davis the news.

"You can walk with your head up," Davis said. "You did it."

On her way out, Monica stopped into one more office.

Pruitt, the guidance counselor, was sitting at her desk.

Monica wondered if she could come back the next morning to talk about college applications.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472.

To walk at graduation, she had to stop running with the wrong crowd 05/26/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 5:47pm]
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