When Nani Espinoza started 10th grade at George Washington High School, she only had three credits, fewer than half the number of credits students earn if they pass all their classes in ninth grade.
Three school years later, Espinoza completed her graduation requirements not just on time, but several weeks early. During her later terms at George Washington, most of her grades were in the A range.
George Washington is Ogden School District’s alternative high school, where students who are behind can catch up through opportunities to move at their own pace.
But even though George Washington gave Espinoza a chance to turn things around, when she first started school there, she still didn’t go to most of her classes.
“I’d get dropped off, and then I’d end up leaving after a class period or so,” she said.
This continued throughout her 10th grade year, until about the fourth term. Then she decided that she needed to make some changes.
“I realized that the people that I was hanging out were going down the wrong path in life, so I just distanced myself from them,” Espinoza said. “George Washington was here for me with open arms. They let me have a second chance at school.”
She said she was grateful for the school’s principal, Benjamin Carrier. He met with her parents to let them know that she wouldn’t be able to stay at the school if she didn’t attend. Espinoza said that Carrier was straightforward, but she always knew he cared about her.
“He just motivated me. He pushed me to get to where I am today,” Espinoza said. “I’m actually pretty grateful to have a principal like him because all the other principals I’ve had, we’ve never had a good relationship, but me and Carrier, we have a good relationship.”
Espinoza had made two friends at Mt. Ogden Junior High that she’d gotten into trouble with, including drugs and fights, which led to suspensions. She said she had few positive relationships with adults at the school, which is one of the reasons she stopped attending.
The friends she had gotten in trouble with at Mt. Ogden came with her to George Washington, but they didn’t attend often, so eventually she was able to separate from them. She also blocked them on social media.
That same year, Espinoza experienced some turmoil in her family life. She mentioned the impact this had in a speech she gave at George Washington’s graduation, though she did not share the details.
“Now, I need to be honest with you. Something big happened our family that year. Something ugly. The kind of thing that changes life forever,” Espinoza wrote in her speech. “For over two months, I never really went to sleep. I would take a nap in the morning, but I never slept. I think it was because I was afraid if I went to sleep, I would dream about scary things, so I made sure that I never dreamed.”
When this happened, Espinoza said in her speech that it felt like her “normal life was now blocked.”
While she had started making progress when she decided to change, she also got some needed support during this challenging period.
She said she would drop by to say hi to friends in a gym class before leaving school early. The gym teacher, Emmett White, kept an eye on her, even as he reminded her to stay for classes and put effort into her grades.
Espinoza said White would ask her how she was doing, and he really wanted to know. He noticed when she wasn’t doing well as a result of the difficulties in her family.
This was one of many supportive relationships she developed at George Washington.
Another key support, Espinoza said, was the school social worker, Lisa Araujo.
During appointments, Araujo learned a lot about Espinoza’s life — things that her other teachers didn’t know and that Espinoza wouldn’t feel comfortable telling most people.
Espinoza said she learned to be more comfortable feeling her emotions and showing how she felt at school, which had rarely been the case at previous schools.
“I usually hold my tears back for a while — bottle up all of my emotions,” Espinoza said. “I never really had anybody to vent to ‘til I came here ... I just didn’t know how to control my emotions. I think that’s the best way of describing it.”
When she was younger, Espinoza smoked marijuana when she needed to relieve her stress. Now, she said, she finds someone to talk to.
In addition to her supportive adult relationships, she also became good friends with two boys at George Washington, Angel and Camacho. Angel loves music, especially corridos (Mexican folk songs). Camacho likes anime and old love songs, like “Bella Notte” in the movie “Lady and the Tramp.”
“They always made sure I came — we’d check up on each other every day,” she said. “It’s a strong bond between us three. No matter how mad we get at each other, we’re always each other’s support system.”
In her graduation speech, Espinoza said she’s glad to be a George Washington Eagle, because eagles are protective of their young and build a soft bowl within their sturdy nests, where baby eagles can hatch and grow.
“George Washington High School became a special place for me to grow,” she said, “a soft place for me to be.”
Espinoza is headed to Ogden-Weber Technical College to pursue a career in dental hygiene after graduation, but she’s not worried about losing her support system because she says she has learned skills that she’ll take with her.
“They’ve helped me so much that I can manage stuff by myself,” she said, talking about Araujo and other supportive staff. “And if anything, they’re just a phone call away.”