A scant year ago, Samantha Horwood was ditching classes at Saddleback High School, ducking school police, drinking hard and skipping finals. Today, she will graduate with a 4.0 grade-point average and a slew of awards as valedictorian of her class at Mountain View High in Santa Ana.
And when the 17-year-old tells her classmates that "success starts from within," this star competitor may remember that she wasn't always in the running.
"I had a fire burning in me," Samantha recalled. "But I was drowning in big schools."
What saved her, Samantha said, was her own determination, the support of her parents and a small school that she described as being "like a family."
Once she reached Mountain View--a continuation high school where students progress at their own pace with individual instruction--she became, in the words of Principal Merrill Jacobs, "a superstar."
For Samantha, the hard part was getting there.
Her stormy teen-age years involved a familiar conflict between the urge to excel and the need to be liked. But her parents' frequent moves and eventual separation made Samantha's problem much worse. After a lonely year as a "studious outcast" at Corona del Mar High, she arrived at a Costa Mesa High School eager to make friends. And those friends she found were not impressed by academics.
Describing her best friend as "strange--the first in the school with spiked hair," Samantha acknowledged that her quest for acceptance caused an abrupt change in her. She adopted her friends' interests--Hollywood clubs, black clothes--and their habits of drinking, smoking and cutting school.
At the same time, she said, her parents' breakup added to her self-destructiveness. "It blew me apart. I was depressed, masochistic. . . . I wanted to hurt myself, and I wanted to hurt them, too."
She drank heavily, fought with her parents, moved back and forth between them, and bounced in and out of two more schools. She cut her hair short, dyed it pink and skipped all her 11th-grade exams at Saddleback High, the fourth high school she had attended in three years.
Samantha's father, a former hotel manager disabled by a kidney ailment, reluctantly recalled the period when his "bright, gregarious girl went mad for a time." Colin Horwood said he is partly to blame. "I'm not a perfect parent," confessed the 42-year-old parent, with whom she now lives in Santa Ana.
Samantha recalled that her father "so wanted me to be something . . . he was willing, by arguing, yelling and criticizing, to make me hate him."
Aroused a Secret Fear
His constant question--"What will you do with your life?"--aroused in her a secret fear that she would live to regret these wasted years. "Life rushes by," she said. "Since age 5, I'd wanted to be a doctor. I could see myself waking up at 27 with nothing."
That fear drove Samantha, at last, to transfer voluntarily to Mountain View. It was there that she suddenly realized: "I'd always been angry with teachers. At Mountain View, I still was. But on my third day, as I yelled at an art teacher, it hit me that I was arguing just to argue. This person wanted to help me."
Jacobs, who came to Mountain View as a teacher 15 years ago, described the mix of self-esteem and love the school seeks to provide as "an alternative to the (regular high) school."
"In a student body of 400, instead of 2,000, you're unique," the principal said. "Samantha didn't have to be a rebel here."
To her father, the change in her was dramatic: "Normal clothes, immediate A's, 100% attendance," he said in a recent interview.
To Samantha, Jacobs seemed like "a sort of god, and the teachers were like archangels. They saw the abilities that I'd been hiding," she said.
Bright students, Jacobs observed, are sometimes bored in public school. "Samantha came in with failing grades and top CAT (California Aptitude Test) scores," he said. "I told her, 'You're going to do great things.' "
He urged her to compete in the Orange County Academic Decathalon, a contest pitting teams of A-, B-, and C-average students in "brainpower" competition; he made her the school's team captain and watched her win a third-place medal.
Next came the Santa Ana District Science Fair where, out of several hundred entries, Samantha won best overall project for her zoology paper, "The Effects of Vitamin A on Regenerating Axolotl Limbs."
A write-up of a research experiment conducted on salamanders under the supervision of two UC Irvine developmental biologists, Samantha's paper took her on to the Orange County Science Fair where she won the most awards of any student: first prize in zoology in the senior division; the California Veterinary Medicine Assn. award, and the U.S. Marine Corps' Certificate of Achievement in Science.
In addition to being named class valedictorian, Samantha was chosen Girl of the Year for Mountain View by the Orange County Soroptimist Club. But she takes the honors in stride.
Winning, she said, "was in me all along; I just learned I had to work for what I wanted."
Clear Vision of Goals
The awards also have strengthened Samantha's belief that she will one day get to medical school. She aims to start with a preparatory year at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana and three years at UC Irvine. After that, she said she wants to join the Peace Corps and to travel extensively. "I want to help people and see every country in the world," she said.
Samantha speaks passionately of her goals, spiced with references to Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci and Buddhist philosophy, and she seems confident that she will reach them. Her passion and confidence are sure to inspire her fellow seniors.
"You all have a fire within you. . . . An energy that has taken men to the moon and created artificial hearts," she plans to tell them in her valedictory message today.
It is the same energy, Samantha Horwood said, that has brought her to the point where today she can say: "I'm ready for life. Even if it slaps me, I know I'm going to slap it back."