They were the top guns of the Class of 1986, the ones on the podium last week speaking to their classmates on graduation day.
As much as their words, however, it was the distance they covered to become class valedictorians and commencement day speakers that delivered the strongest message:
There was Korean-born Charles Park who entered Warren High School in Downey four years ago understanding little or no English. Now he is headed to Stanford University to study economics after finishing high school with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.
At Compton High School, Leopoldo Ruiz was a model of perseverance as he spoke in the campus auditorium.
One of seven children born to a Mexican watch repairer, Ruiz will become the first in his family to attend college when he goes to the University of California, Davis.
And in Cerritos, Jody Richards, the teen-age mother of a 1-month-old baby, accomplished what one school counselor described as the "unthinkable": She earned nearly two years worth of credits in less than a year at Tracy Continuation School.
Now the 16-year-old graduate wants to push on to Cerritos College and become an X-ray technician.
"Before I came to Tracy, I, along with many others, could see I was heading down a dead-end street about to be one of the dropout statistics," Richards told about 100 Tracy graduates dressed in caps and gowns on Thursday.
In the audience her mother held her baby, Brittney, while her father, who helped deliver his granddaughter, listened intently.
"When I was told I was going to Tracy, I had the same negative attitude as I had toward schools in the past," Richards recalled. "However, from my first day at Tracy I knew it was different and I had an overwhelming desire to succeed. . . . "
Success is the common denominator among the dozen graduation day speakers interviewed at high schools in the Southeast and Long Beach areas.
Granted, they are among the best and brightest on their campuses, and seemingly have life well in hand as they make the transition to college. Their backgrounds, however, are varied, and their viewpoints about what lies ahead are remarkably different.
Graduation is not an unusual event in our country, but what is unique for us is when it happened, where it happened, and the faculty, family and friends that were part of our experience."
--Kristin Burns, 18, Millikan High School, Long Beach.
It was in January, 1982, when Charles Park's family arrived in Southern California.
His father, a university professor in Seoul, South Korea, wanted to teach in the United States, preferably on the West Coast. But three days after arriving here, Park's father was robbed at gunpoint. And when his father was unable to find an acceptable teaching position, the family returned to Korea.
But Park stayed and moved in with the family of a friend in Downey. His mother tried hard to persuade him to come back to Seoul. "I'm the youngest, and she wanted me home," the 18-year-old said. "But something inside told me to stay."
Park admits now that he "didn't really know what I was getting into. At first it was difficult. . . . But now it's OK," he said on the eve of his graduation.
Only in this country, Park said, could he have accomplished so much so quickly. He said the opportunities are limitless, and the freedom to pursue them is the big difference between Korea and the United States.
"Korea is oppressive," he said. "If you were to move to Korea and try to do what I've done at Warren, it would have been impossible."
Park is basically optimistic about the future. He said advancing technology is continually "opening new doors. . . . A thousand years ago, the only choices you had were to become a priest, a knight or farmer.
"I don't know if the world is a better place today, but it is sure more exciting."
"Until today, we have led a sheltered life.... Now, we face the meaning of our existence. Oh, it has been fun, to enjoy the carefree life of a teen-ager. Fun has been our prime motivation as we drove to the beaches, to parties and simply to cruise. But, we are hatching and breaking the shell tonight...."
--Charles Park, 18, Warren High School.
Optimism about the future does not come easily for Elizabeth Espinosa, the Class of '86 valedictorian at Lynwood High School.
The 18-year-old said that it is hard to look on the bright side when the news is "continually bad." Headlines about terrorism, nuclear accidents and drugs make Espinosa uneasy about what lies ahead.
"Sometimes," she said, "it's just easier not to think about it."
Among her classmates, Espinosa said she sees lots of wasted potential. Both the problem and solution, she believes, begin at home.
"There's no one to push them, so they settle for less," said Espinosa, who has enrolled at Cal State Long Beach to study electrical engineering next fall. She is the oldest of three sisters. Her parents never went to college--a goal that they encouraged Espinosa to aim for.