As the group of 35 Kenai Alternative High School graduates paused for photos, the voice coming through the loudspeakers told them to give the yellow rose they had just received with their diplomas to the person who helped them the most.
For Eugene Maestas that was his mother Pearl, who he hugged with a big smile. The 19-year-old is the first in his family to graduate from high school, Pearl said.
“He’s the only one who walked, so this means a lot,” she said holding her rose. “We’re really, really proud of him.”
Eugene said his mother helped him throughout the school year to stay motivated. He said the hardest part was waking up early in the morning to make it to class on time.
“It makes me feel like I actually pushed myself to do something for once in my life,” he said, reflecting on his accomplishment. “I’m a really big slacker on a lot of things, but when it came to graduating in my senior year, I just pushed myself right through it.”
Eugene said he wanted to go into the medical field and is currently participating in an internship at Central Peninsula Hospital.
“I’d like to see if I could do it because my mom is disabled and it kind of gives me some experience,” he said.
“He helps me out all the time,” Pearl said before looking at her son again to tell him how proud she was of him.
For Amber Dion, the hardest part of high school was balancing her pregnancy and schoolwork. The 18-year-old said it was hard to describe exactly what it felt like to be a student mother caring for her daughter Talia, now three months old. It was a challenge unlike any other she had to face in her life previously, she said.
“It got really tough at first and I broke down a lot and I ended up sticking it out,” she said. “The last couple of weeks I almost quit.”
Dion said she spent three months in school feeding and taking care of her daughter in class — a situation that could have been uncomfortable, but was made easy by the support of the school and the other student moms, she said.
“There’s a lot of mothers and parents that go here that all have kids, too,” she said.
Among the graduates was Shayde Billman, who was hard not to notice with his 16-and-a-half inch, spiked, black mohawk sticking out of three holes he cut in his motarboard.
He received the “goldilocks” award for his well-known hairdo.
Billman said he previously attended Nikiski Middle-High School where they weren’t as accepting of the hair feature he has had since he was in kindergarten. But, at Kenai Alternative he wore his ‘hawk proudly.
He said the school helped him straighten out.
“I was a pretty bad kid at that school,” he said of Nikiski. “I was always getting into trouble and doing bad stuff.”
Although he said he never thought he was going to graduate, the fewer number of students at Kenai Alternative helped Billman focus on school more, he said.
“My freshman and sophomore year I pretty much did nothing except elective classes,” he said.
Billman said he wants to get his certificate to work on Honda cars, or stay in the family construction business. His advice? Even if you feel down on school, keep going.
“You just can’t quit or it’s just not going to happen,” he said. “If I wouldn’t have come here I would have just kept slacking and not giving a crap.”
Trei Royals had a little different advice — be yourself.
“When you’re in high school you want to be with a group,” the 19-year-old said. “Try to create your own group of friends that you know and like. Don’t try to be someone that you’re not.”
Royals, who wants to earn his petroleum degree and work on the North Slope, said high school is a journey in self-discovery. In his journey, he said he changed the way he presents himself — now he doesn’t concern himself with what others think of him.
“I kind of wanted to be popular and now I just don’t care who it is, I’m always friendly with people no matter what,” he said.
Now his friends like him for who he is and not what he has, he said.
“It took a while to find who I was,” he said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.