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They learned the hard way

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000


The music is jaunty, even hopeful. Brad Labez-Tapang, fingers poised on his clarinet, picks up the central melody of a Pierre Leemans march during a rehearsal of the Wind Ensemble at East Lake High School.

"I chose the clarinet," he says, "because it has so many shifts in tone. It can be both bright and dark."

Bright and dark.

The words resonate with the nuances of a life filled with so much promise and so many challenges, where even winning can bring loss.

Labez-Tapang, of Palm Harbor, Adrienne Holland of Tampa, Michelle Hurtado of Hudson and Kuon Lo of St. Petersburg are the first recipients of St. Petersburg Times scholarships, chosen for their accomplishments in academics and in their lives. They have had many reasons to fail. Instead, they have succeeded. Theirs are stories of resilience and strength.

Brad Labez-Tapang: 'What gives me joy is working hard.'

Brad Labez-Tapang points to his hair, which stands up in porcupine spikes around his head.

"I just decided to let it be what it is," he says.

Then, "I don't feel like an outcast or a loner. But I'm different."

Labez-Tapang, a senior at East Lake High School in Pinellas County, changed schools four times between the sixth and ninth grades after his parents divorced. He, his older brother, his younger sister and his mother moved around the Southwest looking for their place in the sun. With each move, family finances and Labez-Tapang's asthma became worse, at times life-threatening. He was so ill one year that he spent most of it in bed. His teachers thought he would have to repeat a grade. Instead, he had a straight-A average.

Their wandering ended in 1997 when they settled in Palm Harbor. Labez-Tapang entered 10th grade. For the next three years his grades never dropped below an A. "I'm so used to adapting," he says.

He carved out a niche for himself, joining the math honor society, the academic team and the band.

Joining the band was an unconventional move because it is not a "weighted" course. Most students at his academic level choose classes that are weighted or considered more advanced academically, with more grade points given. An A, for example, would be worth five points in a weighted class such as advanced calculus, rather than the traditional four points.

"It was a decision I made," he says, "because I realized I wasn't going to be valedictorian, since in moving around so much, I couldn't get advanced placement classes. I could've had a higher GPA. (His grade point average is 4.21.) But band was a refuge." Labez-Tapang lives with his mother, Faith Labez, and 6-year-old sister. His brother is a freshman at Florida State University.

"I'm a success because of my mom," he says. "Even when she wasn't in the best state of mind, she always insisted that education and doing my best were the most important things."

Chronic depression has made Ms. Labez unable to hold a job, and their only income is the child support his father sends each month and what Labez-Tapang earns tutoring students for the SAT college entrance exam.

"We do not have an expensive lifestyle," Labez-Tapang says. He has a driver's license but does not use the family car "because we can't afford the insurance for me," he says.

"I'm lucky that I haven't grown and my clothes have lasted for so long. I eat a lot. Six meals a day. It's been hard for my mom because sometimes we don't have enough money for groceries."

He says he has felt tempted to lash out against his circumstances, "but I decided not to be like that. I found ways to deal with frustration and anger less aggressively."

He has a wide circle of friends, mostly those who share his interest in music or academics, and he does "regular teenage stuff," confessing to being tired after staying too long at the beach over the weekend.

Still, he says, "It's always distanced me to be intelligent. I don't fit into the high school plan." University life, he hopes, will be a place for "bonding and connecting with people more like me."

He has applied to Harvard and Duke University and will learn in April if he is accepted at either school.

"I've always wanted to be the way I am, sensitive," he says. "What gives me joy is working hard at whatever I do and succeeding. I don't feel I have failed at too much. One of the sad things about being what I am is I don't have the time or the money for a girlfriend, for a serious relationship. I've chosen not to have that."

Adrienne Holland: 'My mother always told me to do my best.'

Adrienne Holland sits on a park bench between tennis matches, composed and quietly self-confident. This is her second year on the Tampa Bay Technical High School team. She has just lost her match against a Riverview player but is pleased nonetheless with her improving game.

"Because you're a girl, you're not supposed to be smart," she says. "You're not supposed to look people in the eye, especially because you're a black girl."

Ms. Holland looks you in the eye.

"My mother always told me to do my best, and doing my best has always been being at the top of the class.

"I'm terrified of failure," she says. "I'm so competitive that I usually avoid things that are directly competitive. So tennis has given me the chance to compete, when I haven't very much before."

That self-awareness drives most of Ms. Holland's decisions.

"I've always been a bookworm. In ninth and 10th grade," she says, "I felt like an outsider, like I was missing out on the teenage experience. I decided to do it different. Not to be the girl studying alone in the cafeteria. I decided to go out and make friends."

She calls it "my intellectual rebellion. I haven't had a traditional rebellion -- get drunk and pregnant. Why ruin my life? I got my nose pierced. I draw the line at tattoos."

Ms. Holland admits to living a sheltered life, at least in her early years, when her mother sent her to private school. That was before her mother, Adrienne Washington, who has a master's degree in social work, became ill with multiple sclerosis.

Ms. Holland started public school and was thrown into a more diverse population.

"One of the things that made me feel like an outsider with other black people was I had learned proper English, and the majority of my friends had always been white.

"People get so hung up on race. I have light skin, but my hair is curly. People ask me all the time, "What are you?'

"Does it matter?"

She says she found God at a Christian youth camp and redirected her life, volunteering for youth groups, especially Young Life.

She took up the cello much as she did tennis, "by default. I'm pretty good at it now," she says, "not the best, but hearing it (the cello) and holding it makes me happy."

Like Labez-Tapang, she has many friends but no romantic interest.

"I couldn't stand someone looking at me every day with moon-doggy eyes," she says. "I like having people on my own terms."

In fact, she says, "I don't see myself getting married. It doesn't seem to work for my family."

She hopes to attend Bennington College in Vermont but is not sure what she wants to do with her life.

"My self-doubt comes from not being entirely sure about my focus in life. It's always been school, but that's ending, so now I have to figure out what I'm going to do and how I'm going to get there. And I will."

Kuon Lo: 'Tell me I can't do something, and that fuels me more.'

At the small table in a kitchen corner at Wan Shee, Kuon Lo grew up.

His aunt and uncle installed it -- the only table in the Chinese takeout restaurant -- 10 years ago for the young man they had brought as a child from Vietnam to America for a better life.

There, enveloped by the aromas of ginger and garlic, the aromas of home, Lo did his homework. He learned to speak idiomatic English from customers. He learned to live without the mother, father and brother he left when he was 5.

"My aunt and uncle have been wonderful to me," he says, "and I love them for their sacrifice. But I have never called them Mom and Dad. They are not my parents."

Lo describes the two years he spent in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines after leaving Vietnam with his aunt, An Kim Lo, and her brother, Len Lo, as "purgatory."

Settling in St. Petersburg, where An Lo's husband, Ty Quach, had opened Wan Shee, Lo entered the second grade at Bay Vista Elementary School. He spoke no English.

"Children can be cruel," he says. "They picked on me because I was Asian. Other people it would embitter. I learned how to open my mind, to learn before I judged."

He learned quickly and well. When he started fourth grade, his teacher called in his aunt and uncle for a conference. "They said he should skip to fifth grade, he was so smart," An Lo said.

Lo was also a hard worker, helping at the restaurant after his homework was done, staying every night until 10:30 to clean.

He pushed himself academically, too. During his senior year, when he could not fit Advanced Calculus into his schedule -- which already included Spanish IV and V, honors biology and advanced placement classes in English, computer science and history -- he decided to take it as an independent study course over the objection of his academic adviser.

"Tell me I can't do something," Lo says, "and that fuels me more."

He took Calculus III at St. Petersburg Junior College because it wasn't offered at Lakewood High School, where he is enrolled in the Center for Advanced Technologies.

A scientist with a lyric heart, Lo loves speaking in metaphor.

"Math," he says, "is a house of cards. Without one card, the whole thing collapses."

He is a member of the Academic Team, which has Jeopardy-style competitions with other teams in Pinellas County and recently helped organize a regional Mathematics Bowl for Mu Alpha Theta, the national math honor society. He won second place at the Pinellas County Science Fair for an experiment with fungus. He is a member of the tennis team, a self-taught player. "I love it. It's a physical outlet for stress."

He works about 40 hours a week at Wan Shee, taking orders and working the register. He moves fluidly between chatter in Vietnamese with his family and in English with customers. The lonely outsider now has "a lot of strong friendships," he says. "We go to the movies, the beach. I love to sing karaoke."

He ranks second in his class of 104 students in the magnet program with a 4.2 grade point average. He has been accepted at Cornell University.

Overlaying every new success, though, is Lo's longing for the lost years with his parents.

"It's always when you look at what other kids have and you start to hurt. . . . It was bedtime stories and walks in the park that every kid should have growing up. PTA meetings and recitals at school where everyone else had a parent. My aunt and uncle were working so hard they couldn't do that."

He wants to pursue biology and astronomy at Cornell. "I want to sponsor my parents to come here after my undergraduate work," he says.

He returned to Vietnam when he was 13. "When I saw Mom and Dad waiting for me at the airport gate, I (felt) as if I had never really left home at all. . . . It was the closest I ever got to heaven."

Michelle Hurtado: 'I expect it of myself, that I can handle everything.'

"Happy?"

Michelle Hurtado says the word, ponders it, when she is asked what makes her happy.

"I'm very proud of myself. I guess that makes me happy," she says. "I don't like to think about things like that. I can't handle the past. I only look inside once in a while."

Her schedule allows little room for introspection anyway.

Hard work, she says, as much as innate intellectual ability, have made her a straight-A student and co-valedictorian at Hudson High School in Pasco County.

She has varsity letters in track, cross-country, swimming and diving. She has two jobs, as a cashier at Winn-Dixie and a technician at VisionWorks. "I expect it of myself, that I can handle everything," she says.

"Everything" has been a lot in the life of Miss Hurtado. She remembers little of her mother, who died when she was in elementary school. "I've blocked it out," she says.

But she does remember living in poverty while her divorced mother struggled with breast cancer, working sporadically at a coin laundry. After her mother died, she and her brother moved in with their father, who had remarried. She says her relationship with him was distant.

After her father's second marriage ended, she took on many of the household tasks, cooking and cleaning for the three of them. She found the experience depressing but did not react in anger. "There's no point in getting back at anyone," she says.

She decided to depend only on herself. She had two jobs by the time she was 14, she says, as much to spend time away from home as to earn money.

"I don't blame my father at all," she says. "He wasn't as strong as me."

She bought a car, a Chevrolet Cavalier, for $5,000, paying off the three-year loan in eight months. "I can't stand paying interest," she says. She has $3,000 in a savings account and the same amount in a mutual fund.

Fun is a luxury for her, its coin of the realm an emotional investment she prefers not to make. "I don't go out as much as I should," she says. "I'm so independent, I'm hard to get along with."

She has a long-distance romance; her boyfriend is a freshman at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and they see each other "every other week, sometimes once a month."

She dotes on her half sister, Alyssa, who is 7 months old. She would like to find her half brother, who left with his father after their mother died. But the central person in Miss Hurtado's life is her brother, Chris, 15. "He's everything to me," she says. She drives him to school each morning and attends his after-school practices and games.

"I bring books and study. I read an SAT book during basketball. I raised my scores that way."

She has applied to Florida State University and Duke University.

Her relationship with her father is improving, Miss Hurtado says. "I realized time was passing by. We don't talk, so I wrote letters to him about my feelings. He wrote back. Things got easier."

She is uncharacteristically still for a moment, then looks at her watch and realizes she is late for work. She waves off a ride to her car, parked in a distant lot. "No thanks," she says, and breaks into a run.

The finalists

Seven other young men and women were finalists for St. Petersburg Times scholarships. They will receive $1,000 for college expenses.

"They were all so outstanding," said Nancy Waclawek, the Times' director of development, who oversees the scholarship program.

Helen Bromfield

Helen Bromfield believes that the group home in St. Petersburg where she has lived since August 1998 is more home than she ever knew living with her parents. She and her mother did not get along, and the daughter felt neglected. "She left me behind," says Ms. Bromfield. "I don't take it personally." After a suicide attempt, the teen was put in a youth shelter. From there she went to Brookwood, a Young Women's Residence. Now a senior at St. Petersburg High School with a B average, she has been accepted at the University of South Florida and thinks she will study psychology and business. She says "I have re-established my life. No family is perfect. My goals are to raise a family and get an education to make sure my children have everything they need. I write a diary now, not for me. I want to give it to my first daughter."

Tiffany Carswell

Her mother's death when she was 7 began "this long misery" for Tiffany Carswell, who still grieves. "I have not gotten over it," she says. She ties her success to her mother's memory, saying, "She wanted us to be something." To that end, Ms. Carswell has a 4.2 grade point average in advanced placement and honors courses at Largo High School and is ranked third in her class. She lives in St. Petersburg with an aunt and younger sister. The money she earns at her job at McDonald's pays many of the bills. She hopes to attend the University of South Florida. She loves math and physics and wants to be an accountant. Her face lights up only once during conversation, when she speaks of Pythagoras.

Sandra Garcia

Engaging and assertive, Sandra Garcia knows what she wants: "I am going to be a pediatrician." She emigrated with her divorced mother from Cuba in 1995, when she was 13. She spoke no English. "Kids can be pretty cruel in eighth grade," she says, "when you have no money and seem dumb because you can't talk to them." With the help of a friend, she mastered the language in one year. She has earned high honors at Thomas Jefferson High School in Tampa. She works as a clerk in an office to supplement her mother's income as a lampmaker. "I haven't seen my dad in six years," she says. "He didn't know I was leaving. We couldn't tell anyone. I know we'll see each other again, somehow." She would like to attend Hillsborough Community College or the University of South Florida, so she can stay with her mother, who does not speak English. She tutors American classmates in Spanish. "Now they need me," she says, laughing.

Khamchanh Khotsimeuang

Even harder than coming from Thailand, where he was born in a refugee camp; harder than living in poverty with his mother and four brothers; harder still than seeing his brothers drop out of school and turn to drugs and crime, was admitting he is gay, says Khamchanh Khotsimeuang. Called Oth (pronounced "Ot") by friends, Khotsimeuang is a student at Lakewood High School's Center for Advanced Technologies. He has a 3.8 grade point average and hopes to attend the University of Florida or the University of Central Florida to study computer arts and sciences. He says being openly gay has brought harassment from some students, but friends and family, especially his stepfather, have been supportive. He takes pride in his activist role with the school's chapter of the Gay and Straight Alliance. "I found strength in myself," he says. "I wanted to take control, not live in fear."

Bonny Rodriguez

The last straw for Bonny Rodriguez was when an abusive stepfather beat her mother so savagely that she was hospitalized. That and the abuse she and her younger brother received propelled Ms. Rodriguez out of her house when she was 15. Because of her mother's personal problems, Ms. Rodriguez says, "I basically raised my brother. We probably ate a million peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I can't even remember how we got to school." Ms. Rodriguez is the legal guardian of her brother, 14; she is seeking permanent custody. "I would never let him go to a foster home," she says. They live with a friend's mother. Ms. Rodriguez supports them by waiting tables at Hooters in Pasco County. That she is also active with the National Organization for Women might seem ironic, but, she says, "The job pays well. I'm not going to be a waitress for the rest of my life." Now at Central High School in Brooksville, she hopes to attend Rollins College, the University of Central Florida or the University of South Florida next spring. "I have to work and save for the move, an apartment for my brother and me. (I have to) get him into school," she says.

April Slade

A slight woman, April Slade stands tall in her ROTC uniform, which drips with medals. "If I wasn't in ROTC, I'd be a totally different person," she says. "Before that, I was the evil child, the kid teachers didn't want. It's taught me how to discipline myself." Discipline was a quality absent from her home life. Her father has been jailed after an incidence of domestic violence, says Ms. Slade, and his abusive behavior to her mother and her was always made worse when he drank. He promised to change, but always, she said, he lapsed. Slade turned to friends, spending long periods of time in other homes. About a year ago, she moved in with her boyfriend's parents. She works at a department store in a mall. Her father is a janitor there, "but I don't care to see him or talk to him." She keeps in touch with her mother, who remarried and moved to Oklahoma. She is a student at Dunedin High School and hopes to attend Florida State University or the University of South Florida to study zoology. "I don't want to grow up struggling to make ends meet like my parents, in dead-end jobs," Ms. Slade says. "And I would like my own family, not a borrowed one."

Willie Williams Jr.

Willie Williams Jr. is a young man with a plan. "I want to be a doctor," he says. "If I can't afford to go to Oberlin (College, his first choice), then I'll go to University of Miami. If there's not enough (money) for that, I'll go to Florida Atlantic. If I can't afford that, I'll stay here and go to the University of Tampa." Williams has a 4.2 average in the Academy of Health Professions, a magnet program at Tampa Bay Technical High School. He is senior class president and vice chairman of Students Working Against Tobacco. He works as a course attendant at Congo Golf and Exploration Co. after school and on weekends. His drive to succeed comes from his past. "That is my strength, what I've been through in my life. It's where I don't want to be." Until he was 11, Williams lived with his mother and five siblings in the Ponce de Leon public housing development in Tampa. Money was scarce, and the family had problems. He moved in with his father, but Williams says they are not close. "I haven't had the support I should have had from a family. I've had to look for it in other places. I can make it if I look inside myself," he says.

* * *

The St. Petersburg Times Scholarships were established in 1999 to recognize high school seniors who have done well in school and in life despite hardships. The first four winners were chosen from more than 550 applicants in the Times' five-county circulation area. Depending on their financial need and the college or university they choose to attend, each is eligible to receive up to $60,000 for the next four years for educational expenses.

At least four scholarships will be awarded annually. Any high school senior attending a public or private school in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando or Citrus counties is eligible. Applications will be available in September in all Times offices and bureaus, high school guidance offices and on the Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com.

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