In Peñasco, 'the class' graduates to community farewell

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 5/31/18

Every so often, teachers, counselors, bus drivers, lunch workers and principals at a school know when they have "the class," those students who, …

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In Peñasco, 'the class' graduates to community farewell

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Every so often, teachers, counselors, bus drivers, lunch workers and principals at a school know when they have "the class," those students who, at times, are headache-worthy troublemakers but always undeniable sweethearts. "The class" of 23 seniors said farewell to high school during an emotional graduation ceremony Saturday (May 26) in Peñasco, the mountain community in southern Taos County.

"You were one of the most challenging groups of seventh graders in quite a while," said Marina López, their former teacher who became their high school principal. "I was more than a little worried about getting you here today," she said.

But López went on to talk about each student's successes and unique personalities, such as Isaiah Moores' mentorship of underclassmen and Jonah Medina's skill with all things tech -- skills that got more than a few teachers out of a bind over the past couple years. A few minutes of Saturday's ceremony were also set aside to remember Gilbert Mascareñas Jr., a student who passed away last year.

Of course, the adults on stage each offered a litany of life advice. After a blessing, Picuris Pueblo Governor Craig Quanchello said the hardest but most important thing a young person can learn is to forgive. Lawrence Romero, a longtime volunteer in the Peñasco schools, who has watched the 2018 class mature from their more raucous days, offered unvarnished and practical ideas for living a good life: "listen to old people" and "always spend less than you earn" were the most salient pieces of wisdom.

But the graduates had their own summations of the momentous rite of passage.

Estrella Gonzalez, this valedictorian of her class, spoke about her classmates' willingness to show up and "put a hand out during the difficult times." She said it from experience borne out of a tragedy of the highest order.

Her dad, Chris Gonzalez, was always her anchor and one of her biggest supporters. Her father was an electrician and was traveling out of state for work when he was in a serious accident and died. It was right before the start of Gonzalez's junior year.

"Something like that can really derail a student," said López. Yet it didn't.

"She didn't use that as an excuse to not do something," said high school teacher Rosa Pacheco-Romero. "I never saw her break."

Her community of friends, teachers and folks from her parents' motorcycle club showed up in a big way, Gonzalez said. Her classmates would come over to sit with her and teachers made safe spaces for the hard days. Two of her friends got all the binders and supplies she needed for the semester and "even put the notebooks together for me, so I didn't have to catch up" from the days of school she missed.

In the past two years, Gonzales has excelled in academics (graduating with a associate degree) and has been involved with almost everything at the tiny school district with a single shared campus for the elementary, middle and high schools. As focused as she is on her studies, Gonzalez has also found simple joys during downtime, like riding around the Peñasco Valley on her 1980s Honda Rebel, a present from her dad several years ago. Felix Gurulé, Gonzalez's brother, "made sure I kept up with it," considering how important motorcycles were to the family.

Though the hurt of losing her dad has eased with time -- somewhat, at least -- the support from her community hasn't waned. Acouple of weeks ago some of her friends climbed seven miles up a trail in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Las Trampas Lakes. While the rest of them fished, Gonzalez "sat down under a nice little tree" to pen her graduation speech, a speech she wrote for her friends and not the adults in the room.

Gonzalez will attend the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque this fall to begin a joint bachelor's and medical degree program. She plans to return to rural Northern New Mexico to focus on women's health.

As the advisor for the 2018 senior class, Dorothy Lopez Sherman, put it, "I admire that girl a lot."

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