Highlands Community Charter School honored their third class of graduating students Thursday night, where 36 graduates of all ages, 22-62, received their high school diplomas.
Standing on the stage to present their diplomas were three ex-law enforcement officers: Executive Director Murdock Smith, Board Chairperson Sharon Rocco, and Assembly Member Jim Cooper. While all three of these individuals have been retired from law enforcement for some time, their work is continuous.
They understand that, of the inmates in prison, most do not have a high school diploma, which is why they have made it their livelihood to provide that opportunity to people in need.
Jim, who now serves as the assembly member for the 9th district, was a guest speaker at the graduation ceremony.
In his speech, he addressed students directly, telling them, first, how proud he was of them and their accomplishment.
“This is a huge deal,” he said. “What you are doing tonight makes a difference. What you are doing tonight is a generational change.”
This was perhaps the most pinpointed statement of the night, because watching all of the graduates’ children run around and play, one could not help but think: They will all go to college one day.
This is why Jim’s final words were said with an air of urgency.
“The important thing is, now, since you’ve done it, don’t squander it. You shouldn’t be done,” he said. Then he took in a slow, deep breath, repeating his words intently, “You should not be all done.”
There to add on to his sentiment were two student speakers, both graduating with their class that day. The first was Jacob Barbato, and the second was Marilyn Hoskins. Both of their speeches sang the same tune, that, one day, not having a high school diploma catches up to you.
Jacob, who was enrolled in special education classes, dropped out of high school his junior year and lived off of his friends’ couches. He said that having learning disabilities seemed insurmountable to him.
“I was mad a lot, “ he said. “I remember I got mad even as an adult when I was here. Like when Happy started talking about integers, and I was mad. I didn’t know why my math teacher was calling me names!” he paused and giggled, “Now, I know an integer is a whole number.” With the final words of that statement, he looked up from his script for the first time and shot a prideful grin into the crowd at his math teacher.
This glance was eerily similar to the look Hoskins had as she took the stage after Jacob’s speech. Only Marilyn’s look lasted much longer than his glance. As Marilyn took the stage, she placed her notes carefully on the podium, took a deep breath, and stared down the crowd. While to many it seemed she was merely surveying the crowd, to some, we knew, she was looking insecurity in the face and telling it, “Go away.”
The response from the crowd? An echoing, “Yeah, we see you!” spoken by a woman in the audience, which broke the silence. Hoskins grinned, and began her speech. “Here I am at the age of 47, getting my high school diploma,” she started, and continued to explain her life story. Starting work at McDonald’s at the age of 16, Hoskins worked her way up in the service industry, and eventually began to pursue medical work.
“I started to study for the state board test, and then someone asked me for my high school transcripts,” she said and stopped.
And then she began to cry.“I thought maybe enough time had passed. I thought maybe it wouldn’t matter anymore that I never graduated from high school. But it didn’t, and my stomach dropped,” she said.
Thankfully, Marilyn heard about Highlands through her sister, who graduated in January 2016, and is now well on her way of pursuing her dreams again. “It was hard,” Marilyn admitted. “But I was grateful to have a humble, wonderful husband who supported me no matter what it took.”
At this point, she motioned out into the crowd at her husband. Everyone turned and looked, as her husband waved with one hand and recorded her with his other – not allowing his recognition to deter from her important moment. No doubt, this was one of the most important moments in many of the graduates’ lives, but as Jim put it, it is not over.
“Sure, this is the best day of your life so far, but it can be better. You control that. Put that fire in your belly. We can’t want it for you,” Jim said, motioning to the board members and directors on stage, “Your families can’t want it for you. You have to want it. You make the difference. You are role models now. What are you going to do with it?”