Locke High School guidance counselor Stephanie Nunez-Marroquin gives… (Arkasha Stevenson / Los…)
The bright blue afternoon sky matched the gowns that billowed as students made the long walk — four at a time — around the Locke High School football field.
They lined up behind the stage to receive their diplomas.
Photos: 'Original' Locke students graduate
Raquel Michel managed not to shed a single tear as she and fellow counselor Stephanie Nunez-Marroquin called the names of the students they had gotten to know so well.
Michel put down the microphone and let out a joyous scream. Miller is going to UCLA in the fall to pursue his dream of working for NASA. He plans a double major in physics and aerospace engineering. Michel helped him raise the money he needed to move in, plus some extra, and she has promised to drop him off for orientation in August.
Rodriguez pumped her fists as she crossed the stage. But she still didn't know whether she had passed the mandatory high school exit exam.
Hernandez began her senior year 100 credits behind. Yet with the help and encouragement of the counselors, here she was — crossing the stage.
When the ceremony ended, Michel and Marroquin stood at the gate. One by one, students stopped to embrace their counselors, holding them tight before walking out, taking a piece of Locke's history with them.
That's when the counselors' tears begin to flow.
The graduates were the last remaining students who had attended the South Los Angeles school before it became a charter three years ago. The "original" Locke students, as they've come to be known, were placed in the Launch to College Academy, a school within a school that shrank with each passing class and, with this graduation, now disappears altogether.
The counselors, too, are bidding farewell to the school. Along with their principal, they are moving to Jordan High to begin anew.
"It's kind of a graduation for me too," Michel said. "This is not just a culminating event for the students, but a culminating event for anyone who invested in the transformation. We kind of, in a sense, grew up with them."
The counseling office at the Launch to College Academy is a classroom — Room 113 — divided like a cafeteria plate. One half is open, with tables and chairs and a gaggle of students who hang out there; in the other half are two offices with walls low enough for Michel and Marroquin to talk to each other in their own code.
The two counselors keep track of students' classes and grades, help them stay on track for college and find ways to pay for it, and offer a safe place to talk out the drama of high school life.
On Monday morning, June 20 — four days before graduation — the room was uncharacteristically quiet. Michel and Marroquin relished the silence because they knew it wouldn't last. Grades had been submitted the night before, and today they would have to break the news to students who hadn't met the requirements to walk with their classmates on graduation day.
The lull ended with Belen Rodriguez. She said she had come in to find out about her grades (she passed) and see if the scores for the state exit exam that stood between her and Cal State Dominguez Hills had come in (not yet). The counselors would let her cross the stage even if her scores didn't come in; she could pick up her diploma later, if she passed.
But, really, she was there to hang out. Rodriguez, who has wavy dark hair and a wily smile, was always weaseling her way into the counseling office to rag on Marroquin because her favorite soccer team, El Salvador, had been slaughtered the night before or to teach Michel how to fist-pump, "Jersey Shore" style.
Soon, the chairs were filled, the room rattling with its typical din. And the counselors' offices were overflowing with students waiting to hear their fate.
There were tears of joy and tears of disappointment.
One student couldn't believe he was getting a diploma. He left Michel's office, made it to the hall and then returned. He had to ask again. You're graduating, she confirmed.
Another, with braids frosted blond and three-toned eye makeup like Neapolitan ice cream, had auditioned that morning to sing a gospel interpretation of the school anthem — "We are Saints and we are proud/So let's stand and sing along" — at the graduation, only to discover in the afternoon that she was three classes short of getting her diploma.
A student with a faux-hawk had a D that jeopardized his plan to attend Cal State Northridge. His teacher offered makeup work after school to bring the grade up to a C, but teenage pride was getting in the way. Michel cajoled him for nearly an hour before she sealed the deal with a pinky promise. (After school, Michel pulled aside one of the boy's friends and asked him to check up on the student.)
Next came Mary Hernandez. She walked in clutching two sheets of paper, straining to hold back tears.