The story of 17-year-old Nahomy Zeron is special, particularly right now.
We met by accident last February in the office at McKinley High School in old South Baton Rouge. I was there working on a project with some students in Humanities Amped, an interdisciplinary class that draws on English, social studies and field research. As it turned out, Nahomy was in the class, too.
In the office that day, she was getting permission to read a “Moment in Black History” over the intercom in her native tongue, Spanish, after another student read it in English. “I was so happy that I had a chance to translate,” she said later. The short notice, though, had her little nervous. “But I had to do it…We should do it more,” she told me.
Five years ago, Nahomy and her mother fled Honduras for America because some people had threatened to kill their family. Her father was in a gang, and her mother was a victim of domestic violence. They arrived unable to speak English.
She was enrolled in the 7th grade. Her mom got a job cleaning up at construction sites. She's now a painter.
Nahomy recalled being bullied, both emotionally and physically, by some students because of her appearance and her inability to speak English. “I was so depressed,” she said. That lead to an emotional breakdown: “One day, I started crying at school, and I couldn’t stop crying.”
Her mom helped her push through the pain, promising that her life would get better in America. Nahomy came to McKinley as a freshman and joined its English as a Second Language program. Now older and tougher, Nahomy became an disciplined student. She was getting the knack for English.
Meanwhile, she saw several Hispanic friends dropping out to get jobs — some because they had to, and others because they were overwhelmed by English, their school classes and standardized tests. “Those tests are hard for English-speaking students,” she said
Her grades bottomed out. “I felt I couldn’t fit in,” she said.
But the love and respect she had for her mom proved pivotal. “I felt I was hurting my mom," Nahomy told me. "She said, ‘I want you to succeed in life. We didn’t come here for you to fail.’” It sank in.
By the second semester of 10th grade, Nahomy got in gear. She had rounded third base on the language barrier, though she still faced other challenges. “But my mom stayed on me,” she said. And eventually, a stepfather would come into the picture who has also pressed her to improve.
She was getting better “because I wanted to be a better person . . . I wanted to participate in class . . . I was motivated to defend myself (verbally) . . . I was starting to read more.”
Alejandra Torres, who works in the ESL program at McKinley, said Nahomy slowly became a leader, advocating for others whom she believed were being treated unfairly because of their problems with English.
Then the big opportunity came. In 11th grade, she was placed in for the Humanities Amped class, the first Hispanic student to be chosen for the special group of students. Participants take their core courses together.
Nahomy calls the class “such a magical place,” with three teachers in the classroom: “I felt like I could be myself . . . We talk about real things in that class.”
Last year, she met other youth immigrant activists at the United We Dream Congress in Miami.
Now, some friends are asking Nahomy, "Why don’t you be a leader?” That means a lot to her. “Nothing about school scares me now,” she said with a big smile.
One day, the Humanities Amped students were asked to write a poem and read it in class. “I decided I was going to write about what it is like being an immigrant," she said. "I was kind of nervous. But when it was my turn, they were all listening . . . When I finished, they were clapping.”
About her Humanities Amped classmates she said, “I feel like they have my back.”
“Thanks to Nahomy’s success,” Torres said, “this school year, eight more high-proficiency ELS students have been moved into the Humanities Amped class.”
“I love all of my classes,” she said. “I love being with my classmates.”
Nahomy says she has dreams of being a lawyer or working for the federal government. She knows either goal will be tough.
Meanwhile, the girl who was bullied and cried so hard several years ago now says she would consider a run for Miss McKinley, which some of her friends have suggested to her.
“I might do it. I want to win, but it doesn’t matter if I win,” she said. “I want to do it for the other Hispanic students. I want to let them know they can do whatever they want.”
Yes, Nahomy Zeron’s story is important, especially right now.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.