He knew it would happen, but not like this. Minutes earlier, he had been in French class. Now he was living the moment that would define his future. It was April 2010. Sergio Velazquez stood in the hallway at Leto High School and faced his stepdad, who was there to pull him out of school just weeks before the end of his junior year. Sergio's family had moved more than a dozen times — New York to Florida, back to New York, back to Florida, home to home to home. It was like his mother was searching for something, but he didn't know what.
Now, back to New York? Sergio pictured himself repeating junior year at 19, graduating at 20, if at all.
"Why so sad?" he remembers his stepdad asking. "You knew this was going to happen."
Obediently, Sergio began to walk, following orders to get his papers signed. Then his throat tightened. His feet stopped.
And he spoke in a way he never had: "I'm not dropping out."
Sergio walked away.
He turned the corner.
And he ran.
• • •
This is an American story.
It starts with a declaration of independence. It ends with a victory. It rests on the idea that freedom brings possibility.
Even when you're 18, and scared. Even when you have no idea what awaits at the end of the hallway.
"I'll sleep on a park bench," Sergio announced, after he raced to school administrators. "I'm not going back to that house."
The kid was frantic. He had no clothes, nowhere to go.
• • •
Weeks earlier, Sergio had begun talking to adults about moving out on his own. A school social worker had put him in touch with a nonprofit that helps unaccompanied teens get apartments and jobs, manage their money and graduate. Its name: Starting Right, Now.
The two women in charge hadn't been sure about the tall, slouching kid whose eyes were fixed to the floor. Would anger problems get in the way?
Still, the women had invited him to a park beautification event one Saturday. They had been impressed when he showed up early, paintbrush in hand. He had walked six miles to get there.
Now the program's founder, Vicki Sokolik, was there for him. A couple of hours after the hallway face-off with his stepdad, Sergio saw her stretch out her arms, and he sank into her embrace.
"This," she told him, "is your new beginning."
• • •
The next hours felt surreal.
Sergio found himself wandering the aisles of a Walmart with a suburban mother of seven. They had met at the park cleanup. Now, she was insisting he pick out underwear.
"My kids wear long pajama bottoms," Deidre Peek told him. "What do you like to wear to school?"
She was his program-assigned mentor, and today, emergency mom. While his mind swirled with the chaos of the afternoon, she planned the next few days — outfits for school, a cell phone, snacks to keep in a hotel fridge.
Sergio told her he had an ROTC awards ceremony that night. She drove him. He won a medal for outstanding cadet, and she sat by his side. He told her it was the first time he'd had someone in the audience.
At the end of the night, Deidre took him to his new temporary home, the La Quinta Inn.
Sergio took in his surroundings, far more plush than he was used to — flat screen TV, gym, pool. Hell yeah.
Soon Deidre left, and Sergio was alone.
Oh my God, he told himself.
What did I just do?
• • •
Sergio opened his eyes.
He'd closed them maybe three hours earlier. Now, sunlight poured into his room.
This is real, he thought.
And he began to cry.
That day at school, he didn't tell his friends — what would he say? He felt alone, like no one would get it, and in class, it all overwhelmed him.
But that night, he felt a special energy. It was the Leto talent show, and he took the stage to perform a rap he'd written. With the throb of the bass drum, Sergio emerged, breathed deep and began:
Kid memories I have prayed/ For the attention you never gave
Always sleeping in your grave
Now I'm lost in this cave...
The cymbals crashed.
The crowd screamed.
Sergio sucked it all in.
His feet lifted off the floor as he commanded them to jump.
• • •
The days ahead were tough.
He lost it in French class after a teacher assigned students to write about their families.
He failed his finals.
He heard from his mother, then cut off communication because it made him sad.
He talked to a psychologist who told him to separate the things he could control from the things he could not.
Starting Right, Now got him an apartment where he lived on his own. His end of the deal was to get a job to help with the rent, do community service and make good grades.
Some days — doing extra schoolwork, riding his bike to a job at the Sweetbay fish counter, returning to an empty home — it would all feel so hard.
But he managed.
• • •
Friday was graduation day.
Deidre drove Sergio to Vicki Sokolik's Tampa Palms home, where they took photos of him in his cap and gown.
Sergio wore a button-up dress shirt, pressed black slacks. Deidre swept his leg with a lint brush. She had been there for him at every important moment of the last year: Thanksgiving. Christmas. His 19th birthday.
At graduation, the women got seats as close to the stage as they could. Sergio got in line. He was stressing.
His mother had moved back to Tampa, and they'd started talking, about once a month. He'd seen her twice. She told him she planned to go to the graduation. But now, he wasn't sure she would show.
The music started. The line of students began its procession. Sergio stood toward the end.
Then, he saw her.
She cradled his face in her hands and whispered in his ear:
"You did it without me."
• • •
He held in tears as he crossed the stage. Cheers erupted from the auditorium.
Sergio's mother, Viviane Ramos, said she was sad this past year, too. She said she would have helped him graduate if he had joined the family in New York. But on Friday, she said, she felt proud.
From New York, Sergio's 22-year-old brother, Pedro Perez, also recognized the accomplishment. Pedro dropped out of high school, he said, to help his family pay the bills and take care of his siblings.
"My little bro is doing something really good for himself," Pedro said.
"It was getting tougher for us. Me and Sergio didn't understand the path my mother chose, and sometimes, when you have to get out, you have to get out . . .
"I was letting him know, 'Take care of yourself. Go to school, bro. Make a life for yourself, if you can.'
• • •
Sergio wants a college degree. Then, a job as a military officer. Then, a career in politics. He wants to have retired twice by age 53.
The big goals felt more real once he learned his next step. He found out this spring, in a moment that mirrored that fateful one last year.
He was pulled out of class.
He walked into his assistant principal's office.
And there, again, sat Vicki.
And Deidre. Smiling.
He'd gotten into Saint Leo University, he learned. It had been his No. 1 choice, but his grade-point average was borderline, and tuition was high. But he had told his story in an essay. These were some of his words:
If, in fact, creative people state that taking risks often promotes important discoveries in their lives or their work, then I must be an undiscovered artist . . . I am determined to face the world with nothing to fuel me but my goals.
He got a full scholarship.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.