Head of the Class

Page 8 of 9

At the beginning of the summer, soon-to-be high school seniors from around Colorado gathered on the DU campus for the weekend-long College Summit. The selected students had achieved promising grades despite growing up in tough circumstances, and now they'd been invited to try out college life. They were going to stay on campus for three nights and tour both DU and Metro. Pablo arrived wearing shorts, a black T-shirt and a New York Yankees cap. He found Blanca in a cotton poncho and blue jeans, sucking on a cherry lollipop.

"Check it out, man!" Blanca said to Pablo. "Look at rule number three!"

She handed him a sheet of paper with the weekend's rules printed on it. The rule that had caught her attention, "No Sex," spelled out in forthright language exactly what the participants were expected not to do with each other. Blanca chortled at the specific prohibitions. Pablo's cheeks blushed faintly.

Pablo had come to DU from Children's Hospital, where he was working as an intern. He was immensely pleased that the hospital had accepted him into its summer-long program, although the registration process had been a little awkward. On the first day, a hospital staffer had read every intern's name but his. When Pablo had pointed this out, the staff member said that he was going to be classified differently than the rest: He was a volunteer, while the other interns were employees. Then everybody but Pablo got welcome packets and hospital ID cards. By now, other students were asking Pablo why he'd been singled out. "I'll explain to you later," he'd answered. The reason was his immigration status: Since Pablo didn't have a Social Security number, the hospital couldn't legally hire him. Pablo had known that he was going to be the only unpaid student in the program, but he hadn't anticipated that the matter would be handled so clumsily.

Now he and Blanca had been invited to this dress rehearsal for college. Both of them had stayed overnight on the DU campus before, which made them feel like old hands. Blanca said DU was her first choice; Pablo hadn't made his yet. "I've been getting all this stuff from colleges in the mail," said Pablo. "Colleges like Vanderbilt and Loyola. My first reaction is, I wonder what it would be like to go there, and then my second reaction is that I probably can't go, given my situation." In his heart of hearts, Pablo wanted to go to Boston University, because he'd heard that it had relationships with all of the famous hospitals in Boston -- heaven for a prospective medical student. But without the DREAM Act, he knew that a college like BU was out of reach. As a backup, he liked the idea of the University of Colorado at Denver, because CU had a good medical school -- but since he didn't qualify for in-state tuition, that, too, seemed beyond his grasp. When he was being realistic, he knew that the best he could hope for was that one of Denver's private benefactors might somehow notice him. Otherwise, he'd try to scrape together enough money to pay the international-student fee at the local community college, in which case his dream of going to medical school was almost certain to wither.

"Hey, what did you get on your ACTs?" Blanca asked.

Pablo didn't want to answer. "I'm not happy with my score," he said. "I'm going to take the test again."

"I got a 27," Blanca said proudly.

Pablo pulled out the white plastic card that he'd finally gotten from Children's Hospital. Without saying a word, he handed it to Blanca. Outside of his high school identification card, it was the first real ID he'd ever had.

"Cool!" Blanca affirmed.

By Thanksgiving, Pablo was almost halfway through his senior year and had inched up to number three in his class. Blanca was number two. Pablo wasn't carrying the American flag in the color guard anymore, because the ROTC faculty had appointed him captain of the drill and rifle teams instead.

Pablo and his posse had had a blast at West's Homecoming football game: Despite the cold weather, they'd taken off their shirts to reveal the letters of their school's name painted on their chests. Pablo was W, Andrew was E, Miguel was S, and a friend named David was T. Sergio had dressed up like the barrel guy at the Broncos games, with a cardboard barrel hanging over his shoulders. "We lasted until halftime, and then we were like, 'No! No more!'" Pablo recalled. "It was freezing. We were surprised we didn't get sick."

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Helen Thorpe is a freelance journalist who has written three books of narrative nonfiction about immigrants seeking legal status, veterans returning home from conflict, and refugee families in the midst of resettlement. She has also published a digital only collection of linked personal essays about family, migration, and food.

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