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California and the West

Homelessness No Barrier for Honor Student and Teacher--His Mother

Education: For much of two years, they have lived in campgrounds. But he got a perfect score on his SAT and hopes to eventually attend Caltech.

April 08, 2001|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SONORA, Calif. — He is the essence of academic excellence, breezing through calculus, steam-rolling through trigonometry. He aced his College Boards--not only the SAT but the three achievement tests in math, writing and physics as well.

He is one of only 71 California high school students named a candidate for the 2001 Presidential Scholarship, among the nation's most prestigious academic awards.

But, most amazing of all, Trevor Loflin did it all while homeless.

For much of the last two years, the gangly 18-year-old senior has lived with his mother and two sisters in pine-studded campgrounds in Tuolumne County. Through winter cold, they've bunked in borrowed trailers, low-rent motels, even garages.

Loflin has studied history in the family's road-worn Chevy Suburban, hit the government books hard on a picnic table, pored over Latin in the dim light of a tent. He has stretched an extension cord from whatever outlet he could find to fire up his computer in a field.

Through it all, his mother has served as his only teacher. Loflin hasn't attended a public school since his sophomore year. Instead, he has been home-schooled--without the home.

State education officials suspect that his case is unprecedented, the stuff of Dickens and Horatio Alger. Though there are no statistics correlating test scores to living arrangements, more than 300,000 California children under 18 are believed to be homeless. Educators say not one in recent memory racked up a perfect SAT score.

"This is a quite extraordinary situation," said Doug Stone, a state Education Department spokesman. "This young man has displayed remarkable talent in an unusually challenging situation."

For his part, Loflin is unfazed by his achievement in the face of adversity. To him, it's a no-brainer.

He wants to go into physics, attend graduate school at Caltech, become a leading-edge researcher.

He read Ingri D'Aulaire's "Book of Greek Myths" at 6, Stephen Hawkins' "A Brief History of Time" at 7--and understood it. He lives to acquire knowledge. He could learn just about anywhere.

"I've always been in academics. It's important to me; it's something I enjoy," said Loflin, a buoyant sort. "I make it a priority. It's not something I'd conveniently ignore because I had distractions."

The years have offered plenty of those. His parents divorced when he was 2, with his mother winning full custody and his physician father remaining in Texas--and mostly out of the picture.

Despite being a single mother, Cynthia Hamilton (who took her mother's maiden name after the divorce) moved to California and managed well financially. A practicing pediatrician, she provided her kids with a 4,000-square-foot home, a swimming pool, horses clothes, toys and all the rest.

But in 1996, life caved in on them. Hamilton got in hot water with Medical Board of California officials after the death of a 10-month-old child in her care at a Fresno hospital. An inquiry produced allegations of gross negligence and professional incompetence. Her job was terminated.

For a time, Hamilton worked in another clinic, and then she tried starting an independent practice. But nothing panned out, she said.

Her savings drained away. Creditors came knocking. Always, the medical board investigation hovered in the background, culminating last year with revocation of her license to practice. Hamilton, who says she couldn't afford an attorney to muster a credible defense, didn't bother to attend the final hearing.

After bouncing around the state, the family ended up at a ranch owned by Hamilton's sister north of San Francisco Bay. The sister gave them shelter and got talking to Hamilton about God.

As a result the family--which had lived a devoutly secular life grounded in the principles of science--became fundamentalist Christians. Religion made sense, Hamilton said, because "there was no scientific explanation for what we were going through."

Hamilton, who had watched her kids grow up mostly with nannies while she toiled long hours at the hospital, vowed to take charge of her children's education, of their upbringing. She decided to school them at home, even if it meant not having a job or a home.

"We've not had a regular residence in three years," Hamilton said. "But we've gotten by, and we've all grown very, very much."

Today, she said, the family is better off than it has been for years. With the help of a social services program for the homeless, they moved about a month ago into a tiny garage converted into a studio apartment.

A remarkably upbeat boy, Loflin concludes that his family's time on the road was "an interesting experience." They ate lots of beans but never went hungry, cooking over a small propane stove. Trevor and his sisters--16-year-old Vanessa and precocious Veronica, 8--always kept busy studying. "We were never really depressed," he said.

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