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The School That Chocolate Built
"I don't remember much, other than it was traumatic and loud," O'Brien said. Back then, there was little in the way of psychological support at the school, and Frankie struggled with mental health issues until his death in 1995. But O'Brien thrived at the school, excelling academically and becoming the star quarterback. He was in the barn milking a cow 14 years after his arrival when Princeton University recruiters offered him a full athletic scholarship.
In college, he took classes in sociology and criminology and reconnected with his father, still imprisoned. Until he was in high school, O'Brien said, he didn't even know his father was still alive.
"I forgave him," O'Brien said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do." He hired a lawyer who got his father paroled after 27 years in prison.
That O'Brien's success is linked to his family's tragedy is not lost on him. "My situation turned out to be so much better here than it ever could have been at home," he said.
Returning to the school as president felt like fate. At his inauguration in 2003, O'Brien said, his eyes filled with tears as the band played "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again."
Jabesso, who shares his sister's long-lashed doe eyes and chocolate skin, was on his way to class in early June. At 7:50 a.m., he and his housemates headed out the door, his housefather patting each boy on the back as they exited.
The boys set out along a paved path for the five-minute walk. Tall trees provided shade, birds were chirping, and the boys were momentarily captivated by a swarm of ants streaming across the path.
Jabesso's energetic fourth-grade teacher, Sandra Daylor, originally from Puerto Rico, took her 15 students through long division. They listened to announcements, had a snack and read a bit of "Charlotte's Web."
The Hershey School spends $74,000 annually per pupil for education and boarding. Average class size is about 15 students, and the school has 195 teachers, 18 of them nationally board-certified. For the first time last year, the students took the Pennsylvania state assessment tests -- required of public schools but not of private. The results were mixed, but school officials consider the testing an important gauge to measure future progress against state standards. "It's tough teaching here," Daylor said. "It's emotional and physical. Most of the kids come here with baggage, and it's a challenge." Last year, 78 percent of the graduating class went on to a four-year college or university.
Daylor is a former public school teacher who came to the school after a troubled student in her class died. Many of the teachers and staff seem to have personal reasons for being here: the IT professional turned math teacher who sought a higher purpose after her daughter's death; the English teacher who called himself an "ADHD poster child"; the activities coordinator who is a school alum. But the thrills and fears of watching children struggle, fail and succeed can often feel like a trip on the brand-new Fahrenheit roller coaster at Hershey Park.
"The school offers so much to students," Daylor said. "All they need to do is to grab on to it."
Mergitu and Jabesso are holding on to everything the school offers. "I get to do things that I've never done before. You can learn a lot from the other kids," Jabesso said. "It's pretty good to be here."
Michelle R. Davis, a freelance writer in Silver Spring, can be reached at email@example.com.