Head of the Class

With his grades and high school activities, Pablo is an ideal candidate for college, except for one hitch: He's illegal.


One day last spring, Pablo took a seat in the front row of his AP calculus class just as a girl named Maria strolled by wearing a hot-pink T-shirt and a pair of skintight, white denim hip-huggers.

"I want some pants like that," Pablo called out.

Pablo shows off a family photo.
James Glader
Pablo shows off a family photo.
The fight stuff: Sergeant Joseph Damon heads West 
High's ROTC program.
James Glader
The fight stuff: Sergeant Joseph Damon heads West High's ROTC program.

"You always want my pants!" Maria scolded happily. "You said that about the ones with the flowers on them, too!"

It was the end of the school day, and everybody else seemed weary. As Ms. Shore, the calculus teacher, slogged through a review of derivatives, many of the students drifted off into their own conversations. Above the blackboard, somebody had hung a large foam hand that pointed upward and bore the slogan "Build a better nation -- get an education." As more and more of the kids abandoned any attempt to follow her, Ms. Shore stoically launched into a problem in which the students were supposed to find the volume of a pool, then figure out how long it would take to fill it with water. To illustrate it, Ms. Shore drew a lopsided trapezoid on the blackboard. "Miss, you're very artistic!" Pablo sang out. Ms. Shore shot him a look of mock exasperation that did not conceal her delight.

"I got 144 for the volume of the pool," announced Pablo.

"Let me check," said Ms. Shore, turning to the back of her book. "Yes, that's right."

Pablo had been living in the United States for close to a decade by now, and he'd become an almost-all-American kid. He ranked fifth in his class, and his teachers adored him; besides being smart, he had a mischievous sense of humor that helped alleviate the tedium of the classroom. "He's a good bad kid," teacher Jennifer Portillo said fondly.

An enormous banner in the school's main lobby exhorted students to "THINK COLLEGE," and Pablo did. Most of his classes were advanced-placement courses, and he spent the spring of his junior year preparing for the ACT exam. Pablo's best subjects were physics and calculus. "If you have an x and a y, what famous mathematician comes to mind?" asked Mr. Pomponio, his physics teacher, one morning. "Pythagoras," replied Pablo. During the subsequent review for the AP test, Pablo supplied so many answers to Mr. Pomponio's questions that the teacher finally had to egg on the other students, crying out, "I'm only hearing one voice here!"

Back when he was a promising middle school student, Pablo had been recruited to join West's prestigious magnet program, the Center for International Studies, which emphasized the importance of understanding other cultures. At the last annual CIS fundraiser, director Dan Lutz described how school-sponsored trips to other countries transformed the CIS students. "The experience has changed their lives, " Lutz preached. "Not just because they encountered a different language, a different currency. They're learning how to listen, with the understanding that other people may be seeing the world in a different way." Then Lutz showed a snappy, upbeat video that spoke of the necessity of creating "globally minded students" who could become the leaders of tomorrow's "global society."

Pablo was pretty global-minded already. He soaked up information about other parts of the world, primarily through television. He was especially partial to the Discovery Channel, and each morning when he arrived at school, Pablo laced his conversation with bulletins about what he'd learned from the Discovery Channel the night before. "The I.T. capital of India is this place called Bangalore," Pablo announced one day. "It's creating a lot of problems in India, because the place is Westernizing so quickly. There are people celebrating Valentine's Day there now." But Pablo was never so preoccupied with world affairs that he failed to pay attention to the people around him. He never passed a handicapped student in the hallway without greeting that student by name.

Pablo belonged to an extremely close-knit circle of friends who had known each other since middle school. When we walked into his third-year Japanese class one morning, Pablo took a seat in the front row, turned around and told me, "This is my posse." Andrew and Miguel looked like grown men, and barely fit into their school desks; Uriel and Sergio were still as slight as Pablo. Uriel had blond hair, blue eyes and a narrow, angular face. Sergio had an extraordinary mop of dark curls that he wore in a densely overgrown Afro. The five teenagers frequently snickered together for inexplicable reasons -- all of their jokes were inside jokes, all of their memories shared. When they passed each other in the hall, they slapped hands or reached over to fondle Sergio's wobbly hair. Everybody else in the posse was an American citizen, however, which made Pablo's predicament a lonely one.

When Pablo was not with his posse, he could often be found in the company of a vivacious, stylish student named Blanca. Blanca sometimes appeared at West in outfits like her fetching Chinese silk-blouse-and-trousers ensemble, complete with a pair of chopsticks stuck in her hair; she often looked like she could go straight from school to a cocktail party. Pablo maintained that he and Blanca were just friends, and while their interest in each other never quite seemed to qualify as romantic, other girls often had crushes on Pablo -- and then got confused because he spent all of his time with Blanca.

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