Some of the high school graduates wore under their gowns county-issued shirts that were stenciled with the names of detention camps. Others talked freely about the armed robberies and assaults they had committed, or about their failures in school.
But Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl Pavilion--in the first ceremony of its kind for graduates of Los Angeles County's Juvenile Court school programs--about 80 young men and women from detention facilities marched proudly to the stirring sounds of the "Rocky" theme.
It was a day to celebrate the success of youngsters who overcame broken families, drug habits and lives of crime to earn high school diplomas and heroes' reception from a standing-room-only crowd of relatives, teachers and friends.
"It's one of the most exciting days of my life," said one proud parent. Her son, John Nesbit, the class valedictorian, stood at the podium, speaking for his fellow classmates:
"We have done well. . . . We have been granted a second chance. We are the lucky ones after all."
But it was not all luck. It also took determination and personal effort, he said.
"It feels good," said Erwin Letona, 18, who arrived at his graduation in a security van with several of his classmates from Camp Louis Routh in Tujunga Canyon.
"Before, I couldn't get a job except for robbing and selling dope," said Letona, who started his life of crime in Watts when when he was 12 by breaking into homes, he said. "Now I have a little education to help me out."
Studied in the Evening
Like his friends at the detention camp, Letona studied in the evening--after a full day's work digging fire trenches--to earn his diploma and a chance for a better future, he said.
Many of the graduates, according to counselors and teachers, often work while earning their degrees whether at camps or at special schools that serve those who have been released back into the community.
"These are kids that have failed over and over again," said Elise Sandiford of the Independent Study Experience Program, one of the community-based educational and counseling services. Many of the young people, she said, are beset by family problems or are struggling financially living on their own. "But they've all demonstrated the tenacity to follow through and reach a goal," she said.
"Of the thousands of kids we see in the court system, these are representative of our successes," she said. "The majority will go on to do well."
Many of them, such as Nichol Castro, 18, of East Los Angeles, plan to begin college in the fall. And like many of her fellow graduates and their parents, Castro credits the Probation Department camps, the Juvenile Court school system and her teachers for much of her success.
"When I was home, I didn't want to go to school. At camp you have to and, once you do, the possibilities of what you can do start opening up," Castro said.
'Things Like Shoplifting'
Castro, who said she began "getting in trouble" when she was 14 for "things like shoplifting," has served about seven months at a probation camp in Saugus and is looking forward to her release later this month. "The whole experience has made me realize a lot things, including my mistakes and how I've taken my family for granted."
For the parents, many of them recording the ceremony with cameras while others dabbed away tears, the event held special significance.
"This is the first time in my life that I feel proud of my son," one mother said.
"I prayed, I cried, I talked . . .," Diana Nesbit said. She recalled her frustrating battle for her son, John, against drug dealers in her South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood who attract the young with their promises of easy money on the streets, she said.
"You see the smartest and the best kids on your block driving around in big cars. . . . You see them selling drugs on the corners, just like they have a license," she said.
'Doing the Same Old Thing'
When John returned home a few weeks ago after serving more than six months at camp for drug-related problems, he found that his former "home boys were just doing the same old thing."
"I'm tired of that," said John, who plans to go to college in the fall. "I try to talk to them like I wish someone had talked to me. . . . I tell them we have to get our diplomas or we're nowhere. I figure I got to change because the world isn't going to change for me."
John's parents said they never gave up on him and on Saturday, John, the class valedictorian, proved them right.