North High’s Model Student

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Aron Palma. I am a proud North High senior. I would first of all like to thank you for your time and consideration in reading this letter. The reason I am writing to you is to hopefully inspire and motivate you to impact a student's life.

He hates writing these things, his "pity letters." But graduation is two and a half months away, on May 27, and to make it special, the 248 students in the Class of 2007 need money. It's up to him, Aron Palma, North High student body president, to get it.

Aron sits alone in North High's counseling center, staring at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, thinking about how to inspire the charity of local business owners. The rest of the building is silent and dark; everyone else has left for the night. "That's the way it is for me," the nineteen-year-old shrugs. "I'm always in school."

Students of North High School are known for overcoming obstacles that most people only fear of.

There, he's started to write it: North's sob story. The story of a school filled with poverty-stricken and struggling students, a story that involves plunging graduation rates and abysmal test scores. It's a story that he feels is hopelessly one-sided but has grabbed headlines for years, placing North at the top of the to-do list for a school district desperately hell-bent on improvement. The word came down this year: North High would not be shut down, as many had feared, but would be completely redesigned. All of the teachers had to reapply for their jobs, and only half were asked back. Next fall there would be a completely new academic program, a new way of doing things, a new population of teachers — a new North that Aron doesn't understand.

"I really don't know why they are doing this," he says, biting his lip. "I really don't know what they want to do with North High School next year." Most of his teachers — and they're good teachers; just look at what they did for him — are leaving, either because they were fired or don't want to come back. There are so many rumors floating around that he wonders if the redesign is really about politics, public relations and personal agendas, not about the students at all. But deep down, he can't shake the feeling that it's somehow his fault. When he recently talked to the freshmen and sophomores about their upcoming Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, he felt the need to apologize for his own class, as if its poor CSAP performance two years ago was responsible for the upheaval.

"I just want to show that North High School is hurt," he says. He tried to do that when he spoke out at a Denver Public Schools hearing in January. "Have you ever had a teacher cry with you for your sorrows, pay for your SAT tests, or how about sneak some food in your backpack, knowing you would need it later? I have," he testified before the board, choking back tears. "North will not be the same if the teachers that have created the tradition and culture are gone." He got a standing ovation, a handshake from the superintendent and a quote in the newspaper. But nothing seemed to change.

I myself have had a tough past, however I do not let my socio-economic and ethnic background affect my education or even consider it as an excuse to not to be successful.

That's all Aron will write about himself. "I don't want this to be just about me," he says, yawning. "I have overcome some things, but I don't care much for pity." He covered his sob story in his scholarship and college admission essays: about his absent father and abusive stepfather, moving from one bad neighborhood to another, having to help raise his baby sister, Ruthie, while his single mom worked her second job. He's thinking about going to the Colorado School of Mines or the University of Denver, but he's really hoping that he'll be accepted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. Because with everything that's been happening at North High School, "part of me wants to stay around here, but part of me wants to go out and explore, just relax a little, get away from everything."

I believe that if students see a simple sign of hope or relief they can achieve beyond their imaginations.

Here's where Aron's pitch comes in: He's hoping to raise $3,000 in the next two months. The money will help pay for the prom, senior activities and, most important, Aron's proposed senior class gift: a massive, wall-spanning mural in the school's central atrium, to be completed before graduation. It will be the Class of 2007's contribution toward North's future — whatever that future might be. "This mural is going to be really important," he says. "It's really important for me and others that we leave what North High School means for us, because next year, who knows what this place is going to be?"

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner