It was just another June night, inside one more vast and sweaty high school auditorium, which one more pianist was trying valiantly to fill with the chords of "Pomp and Circumstance."
Another graduation ceremony, seemingly lost among hundreds in Los Angeles.
But these 49 students, in the solemn splendor of rented red sateen robes, rustled down the twin aisles of Hollywood High's auditorium on Thursday night, toward the crowning achievement of much more than 18 years of life: A high school diploma.
A Night of Glory
Meet Hollywood High's class of 1986, adult-school style. On the same campus where Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner once attended class, this was a night of glory for day laborers, grandmothers and immigrants.
- Marcial Mijangos, 42, a parking lot attendant and former dropout, whose friends teased him that he was "too old to go to school," has decided to become a math teacher.
- Alicia Gonzalez, 26, a cleaning woman, who hopes to study computers, and whose 81-year-old grandmother came from El Salva dor just to see this; tonight, opening her wrinkled hands wide, the old woman said, "My heart feels this big."
- Rafael Quinones, a lean-faced shipping clerk, the sole son among 13 daughters, would like to become a priest, "a good priest. I am 36 years old and I want to make something of myself."
- Tam Van Tranh, 33, drafted out of high school into the South Vietnamese Navy; when Saigon fell 11 years ago, he sailed his coastal patrol ship across the South China Sea to the Philippines, and at last came here, where now he hopes to become an electrical engineer.
- Julio Garcia, 29, a handyman who wants to be a bilingual teacher, arrived from Guatemala speaking not a syllable of English, with $50 and a relative's address--the wrong one--in his pocket. On Thursday, he won a $200 scholarship, four times the amount of money he first came here with five years ago.
For Garcia and his mature classmates, this was the reward for 18-hour days, for dragging themselves to this community adult school, sacrificing four nights a week for several years, after their exhausting jobs, after feeding the kids, after doing the chores. Every hour they studied was an hour of sleep not slept, an hour of leisure not taken.
On Stage and Aglow
At last, on Thursday night, they saw their names--names from a dozen nations--right there on the program. They marched onto a stage aglow in red and blue spotlights, and when some of them made speeches in their newly learned English, strangers applauded their words. Then, in the dazzling blue haze of flashbulbs, they were handed diplomas from an American high school.
"All of us here on this stage are feeling tremendous excitement," said Mijangos, as the red and white tassel on his mortarboard swung against his serious round face and horn-rimmed glasses. "I will remember this graduation just as I remember my first kiss, my wedding day and my first-born son."
For 90 minutes they sat, solemn and respectful, up on stage. There was none of the horseplay, the squirt-gun duels of teen-age graduations. Some of these people took hourlong bus rides to come to class after work, for three or four hours of study, and they had watched in polite dismay as students at the regular high school went racketing down the hallways, heedlessly throwing around books that would cost two hours' wages.
"These kids in high school, they have it and just throw it away," said adult school principal Penelope Pennington, in her first year there. "But these people, many have a job, a family, and yet they still do this. These people have given up five years of their lives for this."
But if they were stoic, their families were jubilant.
Mauricio Coreas had to struggle not to grin as he marched past his 4-year-old son, Juan Carlos, in white shirt and tiny clip-on bow tie. The boy bounced up and down on the chair seat, pointing and shrieking "Pop-eee! Pop-eee!" as Corea's wife, Guadalupe, wept and snapped pictures. Come September, it will be her turn to go to this school.
Pennington, who knows the sacrifices that families made for this, ordered the house lights on so graduates could find "your support team" among 1,000 friends and relatives, some of them in spangled dresses or bright ties, others still in rough work clothes.
In the front row, Tran's wife, Sian, took frantic photos while their sons, 8-year-old Trung and 5-year-old Thinh, each in a three-piece suit, squirmed and waved at their father.
Ten-year-old Shana Moore had greeted her grandmother, Amanda Scott, with a prim little bow and a "Hello, Miss Graduate" that morning. Thursday night, she joined her aunt, Shirley Scott, in a two-person standing ovation to their graduate. Now the 56-year-old nursing assistant from Belize can try to become a nurse herself. "She worked so hard for this," beamed her daughter. "There was one point when I thought she wouldn't finish--but she did!"
Heading for College