More Than Graduation

More Than Graduation

Dionte Henderson sees his graduation from McLean High School as a first accomplishment and the first step to a better life.

When Dionte Henderson accepted his diploma during McLean High School's graduation services on Tuesday morning, it was more than the completion of the first part of his education. It was a chance to begin a better life

"It's a moment I've been waiting for, for a long time," said Henderson, who counts Student Government Association president among his long list of achievements at McLean High School. "I've always wanted to get out of this area and be able to focus, start my life over. This is something I've been longing for for a long time."

Henderson's life has been filled with hardship, tension and broken dreams for as long as he can remember.

"When I was four years old, my father left my mom and me," he said. Following that breakup, he and his mother encountered a series of what he called "bad situations," including an abusive relationship and economic difficulties that continue through today.

"All my life I've been moving around," he said. "My mom was laid off when I was little and no one's wanted to give her a chance."

After eventually moving in with his grandmother, Dionte and his mother, Deborah Henderson, were faced with one of their toughest decisions.

"My grandmother's apartment was being renovated, so we could only stay there for a few months," he said. Reluctant to change schools, Dionte lived with the family of a friend he had made only that year. Three years later, when it was time to start high school, he moved back in with his grandmother.

"In order to stay with her and go to school, my mom would have had to give up all parental rights to me and sign me over to my grandmother," he said. "I didn't want her to do that, she didn't want to do that, so we didn't tell anyone for a while."

EVENTUALLY, THE apartment complex found out he was living with her but not officially on the lease. Dionte and his mother moved into a Fairfax County shelter, hoping that someone would help his mother find a job to secure a home.

"Luckily, my mom was talking to a woman whose son's name was Dante," he said. "She had told my mom before that there wasn't anything available in any shelter in the county, but because they were able to make that connection with our names, she was able to find a place for us."

The apartment was not much — he describes it as a room with two beds and a bathroom — but it was enough for him to stay at McLean High School.

"That was the hardest year of my high school," he said. They stayed in the room until April of 2003, when they were able to move into a shelter.

Being surrounded by students in McLean that had so much more than he had, in addition to family pressure to drop out and get a job to support his mother, Dionte said he often thought about giving up. He knew, however, if he kept working hard, he would be able to help more in the future.

When the pressures got to be too much, Dionte asked his mother to talk to some of his teachers, to let them know about the very delicate situation they were living in.

"I didn't want to be treated any differently than any other student," he said. "If I was going to turn in a paper late, I would rather take the zero than get an extension. In the real world, I knew that no one would help me out or care about my problems. I didn't want to be treated any differently in school either."

During his junior year of high school, Dionte found what he calls his pride and joy: the City of Peace program in Washington, DC.

"City of Peace is a youth outreach development program that addresses things like cross-cultural understanding and non-violent conflict resolution through the performing arts," he said.

THE STUDENTS INVOLVED in the program put on skits based on the lives of the cast, including Dionte, at venues like the Lincoln Theater and other places in Washington.

"It gave me the chance to tell my story, which was exciting but it was scary because I was up there, on stage and vulnerable to all those people," he said.

After he told his story, he received a standing ovation.

"You touch someone who's going through the same thing and it made me realize that I'm not just being strong for myself, I'm being strong for others too," he said.

His dedication to making the most of his education has been something of a double-edged sword — his list of extra curricular activities make him attractive to colleges but many of his classmates feel he's been accepted to schools they haven't because of his race.

"As a black person, I've been told my whole life that I have to work twice as hard to get something a white person does," he said. "I had to work my butt off during high school. It's amazing how this happens but I don't let it get me down."

There have been countless days where Dionte would arrive at school before the buses, at 7 a.m., and stay until 9 p.m. or later in order to participate in activities.

"I didn't want to go home," he said. "When you're around fortunate people, you almost forget you're in the situation of poverty. I was stressing out and doing so much at school because I wanted to and because I developed a strong love for the things I was doing."

Now that he's graduating and leaving McLean, his next step into his future appears to be in the right direction.

AFTER APPLYING to the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Columbia University, Boston University, New York University, Drexel and Northeastern University, he's been accepted at every school except New York University. He's been wait-listed at Columbia but has accepted a full scholarship to Boston University.

However, that does not mean his problems or worries are over.

"I don't know what my mom is going to do," he said. "I might not have a home to come back to during vacations and breaks."

He is concerned about his mother, how she'll cope and support herself when he's gone, but knows that the next four years will be important for his future.

"My diploma is not a ticket to anything. It's not an assurance than everything will go all right in my life from here on," he said. "My diploma will be like a photograph. It'll remind me that these 18 years happened and I made it past them and over that hurdle. I don't want to get too excited about it because nothing in life is guaranteed."

Dionte approaches life with a maturity and matter-of-fact nature that seems unusual for a high school graduate, especially at a time when most of his peers are preparing to spend the summer relaxing at graduation parties before heading off to college.

"I'm proud of where I am now," he said. "I'm not going to throw this all away."

At the end of his first year as principal of McLean High School, Paul Wardinski said he's very impressed with Dionte and all he's accomplished in his often troubled life.

"I've only known him for a year but I've been wowed by his accomplishments," he said. "People forget sometimes how tough some of our kids' lives have been."

Dionte's decision to "take the higher path" makes him an exceptional student, Wardinski said. "He's going to do whatever he wants to do in life," he said. "The goals he sets for himself are higher than anything anyone else would ask of him."

As Dionte's guidance counselor during his senior year, Cathleen Harrington said she will miss this "talented young man."

"He's gone through a lot more in the past few years than most people," she said. "Hopefully he'll continue to do well in college. He wanted to make sure he was going to a college in a big city so he could pursue acting and the theater. He's very talented, he'll do well."

"This kid is astonishing," said Donna Smith, a teacher at McLean who worked with Dionte on the step dance team he helped to create. She, along with the Care group at the Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, threw Dionte a surprise graduation party Monday afternoon.

"He deserves a party, he's never had one, and we wanted to make sure he was ready for college," she said.