When Denver teenager Dajina Bell graduated from high school last week, she celebrated a remarkable academic and personal comeback. Bell's high school years, marked early on by her brother's death and a host of other troubles, ended with her becoming her family's first graduate.
Bell's story got our attention after she appeared in two Colorado Public Radio stories. The first was in January, when Bell told reporter Jenny Brundin about how she went from being a bright kid who liked school to being one who, she tearfully said, "hated everybody. I did not want to go to school. I was mean to teachers."
The sharp decline from a girl who had been to pre-school and kindergarten, and who was taught by her mother to love to read, started after Bell began high school.
"When I got to ninth grade....ninth grade... OK, I might cry," she said back then. As Brundin explained, Bell's brother, Cedric, was shot and killed that year.
At school, Bell felt isolated. She stopped engaging in class, and eventually she started getting "straight F's," she said.
At the same time, her family was forced to move around the city, struggling to stay afloat.
The turning point came when a teacher asked Bell a seemingly everyday question: "How are you doing?"
"Dajina did better in that class," Brundin reported. "Instead of an F, she got a D. But there was a glimmer there."
"I mean, I didn't pass," Bell said. "But it was better than all my other grades. She really saw the potential in me... she just brought that kind of feeling throughout like, 'I need to do good in her class.'"
Eventually, Bell moved to a new school. She started earning A's, trying to make up for lost ground.
"I came here with a 'point-something;' I'm leaving here with, probably by the end of the year, with a 2.0 — which is better than anything, but that's not what I want for myself. That's not what I imagined," Bell told Brundin.
Bell's mother, Felicia Williams, encouraged her daughter to keep trying. Williams dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade. As a 2011 NPR education series reported, nearly 1 million teenagers drop out of school every year.
"I just kept telling her my story," she told Brundin. "Be different than me, do different than me."
And that brings us to Bell's graduation ceremony, where she stood in cap and gown. Brundin reports that Bell's family and friends took up two rows in the auditorium.
"It feels surreal... it really hasn't hit me yet," she said. "I feel like I'm in third person or something. Like I'm not here. Like this is not me. I think maybe once I walk across that stage and I get that in my hand — after I get my diploma, I will be satisfied. Because right now, I'm not satisfied."
After Colorado Public Radio aired its report on Bell in January, "an anonymous donor who had heard her story on CPR stepped forward and set up a scholarship in her name," Brundin said. "It will leave her with money when she's ready to transfer to a four-year college."
Bell has been accepted to a community college, where she'll take courses to become a paralegal. But she has her sights on law school, as well.
"She takes a minute to think when I ask her how she wants to feel in the future," Brundin said.
"Successful," Bell answered. "I want to feel like I did something. Like I'm worth something, you know?"
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