'This School Was My Safe Place'

'This School Was My Safe Place'

Mountain View High holds winter graduation.

Students attending Mountain View High aren’t like others in Fairfax County. Besides those grappling with language barriers are students who’ve had to overcome a variety of obstacles to succeed in school.

But with help and guidance from their classmates, teachers, counselors and administrators, 61 of them donned caps and gowns, last Friday, Feb. 7, and filed into Centreville High’s auditorium for their school’s winter graduation.

“Seniors, it’s been an absolute honor to be your principal,” said Principal Dave Jagels. “We are so very proud of you.”

Then, as is Mountain View’s tradition, three students shared their personal stories with those who’d come to the ceremony. They were filled with emotion and left both them and the audience wiping away tears.

First to speak was Abby Fernald. She’d spent three years at her former high school, but things continually worsened for her. “Battling with depression, I began acting out,” she said. “So in June, I attended an interest meeting at Mountain View. I was feeling hopeless, but I didn’t want to risk failing my senior year.”

Starting school in September 2013, Fernald was “frightened about the decision I’d made. I thought Mountain View was full of mean, rule-breaking students. But instead, I found people who showed me this school would support me and I began to enjoy myself.”

She excelled beyond her own expectations and made the honor roll. “I’m now graduating and I owe a huge thanks to my teachers for helping, supporting and encouraging me,” she said. “I’m happy for the opportunity to attend such an amazing school.”

Gabby Linares had a tough time at her previous high school, too. Right from the start, she was bullied. “The other students called me fat and ugly, and some girls threatened to beat me up,” she said. “I sat by myself during lunch, but food was thrown at me. As my junior year began, I was afraid to attend school. That spring, I got beaten up, and a girl broke my glasses while the others laughed.”

By last summer, before her senior year, said Linares, “I was depressed and suicidal because of all the bullying. So I decided to come to Mountain View. I was nervous at first, but I felt welcomed by the staff and students — who were more mature than the students in my other school.”

Initially, Linares expected the bullying to continue at Mountain View, but eventually overcame that fear. “My counselors gave me advice and helped me deal with my problems,” she said. “I now have pride and confidence in myself. Here, the counselors, teachers and administrators take the time to listen to the students and help them.”

She then thanked her mother, Maria, and brother, Fernando, for being “the motivation to get me here today. Being at Mountain View gave me the strength to not give up and to continue school — thank you.”

The final speaker, Aya Abdelhalim, was a track star at her former high school and strived for perfection. “But like the box of a jigsaw puzzle, people only saw my cover,” she said. “They never saw the pieces on the inside.”

Her problems started much earlier, though. The aftermath of a tragedy propelled her into a downward, emotional spiral. “When I was 10 months old, my father was killed in a car accident,” said Abdelhalim. “As I grew up, I felt empty.”

Then, as tears spilled from her eyes, she fell silent, unable to speak. A classmate yelled out, “That’s OK; you can do it,” and the audience began clapping. Composing herself, she resumed. “Not a day goes by,” she said, “when I don’t imagine how my life would have been changed if he’d been here.”

As it was, said Abdelhalim, she started cutting class, lacked the motivation to succeed in school and had “little desire to live.” Making matters worse, she said, “I had seasonal depression. When the weather got colder and darker, I enclosed my depression in a bottle. But it didn’t take long for that bottle to break.”

But in May 2013, she came to Mountain View for a fresh start. “I was determined to do better for myself and in my father’s honor,” she said. “The teachers and administrators made me feel good about myself; this school was my safe place.”

Now, said Abdelhalim, “I’m trying to do better and make better choices.” She then encouraged teachers everywhere to realize that “all students have hopes and dreams, as well as strengths and weaknesses. Like a puzzle, help them put those pieces of themselves together.”

Stepping to the podium after her, Assistant Principal Gary Morris choked up, too. “Now you know why we come to school every day,” he said. “To all the parents, thank you for sharing your children with us. They’ve achieved so much after overcoming significant obstacles.”