ATLANTA — The journey for three particular Atlanta high school seniors was intense and ambitious. They juggled the demands of work, school and life with a maturity beyond their years without losing sight of graduation day.
Neither homelessness nor illness nor a full-time job could derail them from achieving their personal best.
Among the thousands of students to graduate this month, they became master multi-taskers, surprising naysayers and even themselves with their drive to succeed.
Frederick Dukes faced his senior year with a survival instinct.
He was left homeless and alone after his stepmother, who brought him from South Carolina his junior year, moved for a job. Dukes, 19, stayed because he was determined to get his diploma, even if he had to do it by himself.
“If I didn’t push myself, no one else would,” he said.
So he juggled it all – getting to school on time, getting good grades, finding odd jobs to earn money to buy food and clothes. Dukes rented a room for $50 a week from the grandmother of a close friend.
His Washington High Senior Academy teachers were in the dark about his situation. Dukes was too proud to ask for help.
“I keep a smile on my face and try not to let my situation interfere with the person that I am,” Dukes said.
The senior would start his day with the sound of three alarm clocks jolting him out of bed. After school, while other students were at football practice or club meetings, he would stay to do homework or go to a friend’s house to use the computer. Then he would canvass the neighborhood looking for work.
He has cut grass, fixed air conditioners and sold candy and sodas to raise rent money. His school snack business grossed about $250 a week.
Sales slowed down when principal Tiauna Crooms confiscated his candy and began investigating why he needed to raise money.
Dukes got discouraged, but kept telling himself: “This is for the moment, Fred. You are working toward your future. Don’t let nothing stop you … God is not going to give you more than you can bear.”
Eventually, he told an adviser that the family he was living with was being evicted over Christmas break and he had to find a new place to live.
“It was a low period for him,” Crooms said. “Our teachers really stepped up to help.”
They gave care packages, grocery cards and referrals for clothes. The safety net of support continues.
“They showed me that they cared,” Dukes said. “In the end, that support is what motivated me to keep going.”
Dukes graduated this month with a 3.3 GPA and will attend Coker College in South Carolina, the state where his biological mother lives. He plans to study business after his success in candy sales.
“From now on, I’m going up in life,” he said. “I refuse to take another step back down.”
ZAINUB DHANANI is known as the “superwoman” of her graduating class at the Lovett School.
The 18-year-old was a top contender for valedictorian, when in January, an autoimmune illness threatened her health and chance at the title. She stayed home ill and weak for two months, returning in March with a lofty goal some believed was impossible.
Dhanani vowed to complete three months of homework, her current assignments and those for January and February, before the March 29 cut-off date to be considered for valedictorian.
“The principal and academic dean said, ‘She would have to be a real superwoman to do that,’ ” her mother, Dilshad Dhanani, of Duluth, recalled.
Teachers were willing to lighten her load. But Dhanani didn’t want shortcuts. She set up a study schedule devoted to old and new homework. Then came the heavy lifting. Dhanani crammed three science research lab studies into a single day and completed about four major assessments each week, including essays, projects and quizzes.
Spring break didn’t stop her. She was testing at Lovett instead of resting on a beach. The workload was overwhelming at times.
“It pushed me to see how much I can handle and made me closer to God,” she said.
She met her deadline.
“She completed every graded assignment, quiz, test and lab,” her mother beamed.
She graduated Sunday with more than a 4.0 GPA and the valedictorian title, breezing through nine Advanced Placement classes.
“Honestly, it was a lot of work,” she said. “I was able to manage it because I had such a great support system. I didn’t want to see all of the work I had done my four years at Lovett suffer because of my last segment of high school. I am one of those people who pushes themselves to be the best they can be.”
Dhanani will attend Harvard University, where she says her academic juggling act will pay off.
CIERA DUNN raced through her senior year in overdrive, juggling AP classes and a full-time job, because she craved financial independence.
The 17-year-old graduated this month from Central Gwinnett High School, excited and exhausted. Since August, Dunn has been going practically nonstop.
First, it was classes until midmorning, followed by a couple of study hours in the library. Then, off to work at a Walgreens in Lawrenceville, Ga., where the lessons she learned in AP economics took hold as she stocked shelves and rang up sales 30 to 40 hours a week.
Homework and sleep got wedged in between her hectic schedule.
The ambitious senior decided to take more AP classes and enroll in a work-study program, gladly sacrificing her social life to earn a better income.
She saved for college and for a $2,500 silver Toyota that made it easier to get to work, until it broke down recently. She is saving to get it fixed. Dunn skipped prom to avoid the expense.
“I semi-regret that,” Dunn said.
She teared up with relief after her final AP exam, admitting that juggling so many things was hard. “Many times, I just didn’t want to get out of bed, but you have to. It puts me in awe, when I look at my co-workers who have families and car notes.”
Amazed by her granddaughter’s determination, Willie Allen, of Decatur, Ga., said, “I am very proud of her.”
Dunn graduated with a 3.3 GPA and college credits that will allow her to skip freshman history and literature. She has been accepted to five Georgia colleges, including Georgia State University.
Once she begins college, she hopes to commute to Walgreens to work. She needs book money.
“I want to be an orthopedic surgeon,” she said. “It has always been my dream.”