In 2001, a baby girl named Marciela was born addicted to methamphetamines, opiates and alcohol. She spent six weeks in the hospital where doctors cleansed her little body of the toxins. She then spent two weeks with her birth mother before being given up for adoption. She was a ward of the state until she was adopted at age two, but seven years later, her adoptive family decided they couldn’t keep her and she was given up for adoption for the second time in her short life. At age nine, Marciela was once again a ward of the state. She was moved to the Stockton area where she attended school after school and was generally considered a troublemaker.
In fifth grade, to her great relief Marciela was diagnosed with dyslexia. The diagnosis changed how she thought about herself. She said, “I was able to stop beating myself up and I realized I was not hopeless.” She didn’t have anyone at home to help her, so she started with picture books and taught herself to read.
Each time she moved to a new foster family, she stayed home from school for the two weeks before and after the move. Statistics show that students who miss 10 percent of school, or 18 days in a school year, are less likely to graduate from high school. Between the social and emotional upheaval of changing families and peer groups at new schools and the lack of academic continuity, the cards were definitely stacked against her.
At age 13, Marciela moved back to Mendocino County and was briefly enrolled in an independent study program before coming to Ukiah High School in the spring of her freshman year. Initially, she lived in a group home, so she didn’t have a parent or guardian to advocate for her, but her success at learning to read had made her believe she could do well in school if she applied herself. She had earned decent grades in middle school, even though her friends had little interest in school. So when she came to Ukiah, she decided to discard her Individualized Education Plan (the special status afforded to her because of her dyslexia), and enroll in a standard course of study.
Then she took things a step further. After getting an A+ in algebra her freshman year, she took a math placement exam that indicated she was ready for trigonometry, but she hadn’t taken algebra 2 or geometry, so she enrolled in both at Mendocino College for the summer between her freshmen and sophomore years. Because she’d been told this was too much to take on, she had two different counselors sign for each course so no one would try to stop her. When she told her math teacher, Mr. LaPotre, her plan, he encouraged her. He gave her an algebra 2 textbook and his cell number and said she could call anytime for help. She passed both courses with As. She then completed honors trig, calculus A-B, and calculus B-C, acing them all.
On the personal side, things started looking up when the Marciela’s “sister,” Erin, began providing extra support. Erin was not a biological family member, but was connected to Marciela’s original adoptive family. Erin had no legal obligation to help Marciela; in fact, she had a new baby of her own to care for, but when Marciela reached out, Erin was there. Occasional support became frequent support, which became a foster family and by the time Marciela was 15, Erin had become Marciela’s legal guardian. Erin fully admits that she was just “winging it,” doing the best she could to provide a stable, supportive home. According to Marciela, she did a great job.
While many of Marciela’s friends from Stockton have become young mothers, Marciela has different plans. After getting straight As for most of her high school career, becoming president of MESA, and participating in the STEM Club that competed at the National Sea Perch Underwater Robotics event in Washington DC, Marciela will attend UC Berkeley in the fall to study applied mathematics. She is able to do so because she has been awarded well-deserved academic grants and scholarships, the Chesall among them.I am in awe of Marciela’s resourcefulness and determination. I love it when the underdog wins.