From chronically absent to valedictorian of her senior class at McLain High School, Crystal Garcia has come a long way since freshman year.
Garcia often reflects on the student she was four years ago and the student she is now as she prepares to graduate this weekend. For her, the difference is staggering.
“It’s really surprising, honestly, because I never saw myself getting to where I am in this moment,” she said. “You don’t expect a bad person from school becoming successful or at the top of the class. You see them and think, ‘Oh, they’re going to be out in the street or doing crime.’”
But it’s not that Garcia was a bad person — or even a bad student. She still made A’s and B’s.
She did, however, hang with the wrong crowd. She missed chunks of her freshman year. Her mom, who moved here from Guatemala with her brothers before she was born, always worried about her.
“I don’t know what was in my head at the time,” Garcia said. “I was just rebellious. I didn’t want to do anything at all.”
Something was bound to give, whether it was her grades or behavior. The choice, she found, was easy.
In the end, Garcia said she realized she didn’t want to be that type of person. She wanted to make her mom proud and better represent Latina Americans.
She picked up the slack toward the end of ninth grade — and not just academically. She and her friends created a girls soccer program at McLain and found a teacher willing to coach the team.
At first they struggled to find enough students to compete in games. Now they have about 18 players. Garcia is worried about the program’s future when she leaves and hopes to come back next year to help coach.
This year, she joined the Tulsa Debate Club to overcome her shy demeanor and fear of public speaking. The experience terrified her, but she said a teacher compelled her to try it out during a debate about immigration, for which she cares deeply.
Garcia said her time on the debate club helped her develop confidence and find her voice.
“I was so nervous (in the beginning). There was a lot of sweat,” she said. “But I just gave a class speech, and I wasn’t even nervous at all about it.”
She’s also involved in art projects around the school and is the senior class secretary. This is all on top of holding a job and taking three AP classes and maintaining the highest GPA — a 4.4 — among the soon-to-be graduates.
AP teacher Victoria Hall never witnessed Garcia’s rebellious freshman side. All she knows is that person sounds nothing like the dedicated and intelligent student she’s taught the past two years.
“So often when I teach juniors and seniors, I don’t always see those first years where they’re still struggling to find out what they want school to be for themselves,” Hall said. “And had I not known that about (Garcia), I never would have guessed that was her story.
“It’s always great when you see a kid realize the value of themselves and what they’re doing over the value of what other people think is cool or what they think they should be doing.”
Hall has seen Garcia come more out of her shell, however. Last year she was quiet and somewhat withdrawn, while this year she’s become more confident and outspoken. The teacher said she didn’t realize Garcia’s academic prowess until she correctly identified just about every country in the world during a map quiz.
Garcia said her transformation at school helped strengthen her relationship with her mother.
“She’s actually really proud of me,” she said. “She doesn’t really worry much about me anymore. Basically she trusts me now.”
Garcia also hopes to use her success to change people’s mindsets about minority students and inspire those who perform below their potential.
“I want to help others do better so they won’t struggle like I did when I started high school,” she said. “They need to be reminded that every year counts, and your hard work will give back to you in the future.”
As for after graduation, Garcia plans to study criminal justice at Tulsa Community College and join the Army Reserve to help pay for school. Her goal is to transfer to a four-year college, preferably the University of Tulsa, and eventually become a homicide detective.
She will be the first in her family to attend college.
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