Bernie Williams missed three months of class his sophomore year because the elevator at his school was broken and there was no way to get his wheelchair up the stairs.
Davone Killerbrew and Walter Kelly bounced between the courtroom and the classroom, fighting the pull of the streets, emotional disabilities and taunts from buddies who said that, at 21, they were too old to be in 12th grade.
Laura and Erinda Kemoli left school in Kenya at age 15, when their father had no money to pay tuition; then they boarded a plane to a new life in a strange country where public school is free.
Last week, all five young adults donned caps and gowns and received D.C. high school diplomas, cheered on by dozens of relatives and friends.
Among the thousands of young people who graduated in the region this spring, their stories of overcoming obstacles stood out. Their diplomas represent far more than 12 years of tests, homework, proms and clubs. For them, the documents are proof that, despite odds many thought would defeat them, they have made it.
Bernie Williams was just 5 years old when he was struck by a stolen car and paralyzed. After years of hospital stays and rehabilitation, the 18-year-old can use his left hand to write and feed himself and can walk a few steps if he is supported on both sides. He relies on an electric wheelchair to get around.
At his mother's modest home on South Dakota Avenue NE, he sleeps hooked up to a respirator to help him breathe. He speaks haltingly, drawing breath through a tracheotomy hole in his throat and pushing out the words in short bursts.
A slight, quiet young man whose teacher describes him as "a taskmaster," Williams spent first through eighth grades at the District's Sharpe Health School, a special education facility. He later switched to a special satellite program for the physically disabled at Roosevelt High School, across the street from Sharpe on upper 13th Street NW. An aide helped him go from class to class.
His mother, who worked at Sharpe as an educational aide, stretched her meager income to take care of her son's many needs, selling holiday cakes and hoarding tax refunds to buy him a computer and a $12,000 wheelchair.
For three months in 1997, when Roosevelt's elevator was not working, Williams's aide brought assignments and handouts from teachers to the first-floor classroom where he and other students who used wheelchairs were confined. Williams's normally strong grades plummeted, especially in chemistry, since he couldn't participate in labs. But he passed all his courses and eventually pushed his GPA back up to a respectable 2.9. He also headed Roosevelt's Red Cross chapter and its computer club.
"I just kept on doing my work, so I would make it," Williams said. At his graduation Thursday, he sat on stage as an honorary member of the National Honor Society and was presented with two special achievement awards.
Williams has been accepted at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he plans to study computers and hotel management, and he is waiting to hear about financial aid and whether social services can provide an aide and other support.
Although his mother has reservations, Williams is eager to try life "on my own for a while."
Davone Killerbrew joined his aunts, uncles and grandmother on his birthday in February and talked about goals for the coming year. At 21, he was still in high school.
All his brothers and sisters had dropped out of high school, later earning equivalency degrees. Killerbrew wanted more.
"I told them I was going for my diploma, and I was going to graduate this year." He felt he had made a promise to them and was determined not to break the pledge.
He'd struggled from the very beginning. At age 6, while he was playing outside, his mother and a brother were killed inside their home by the mother's ex-boyfriend. Severe learning disabilities and emotional problems followed. In junior high, he was arrested for bringing a gun to school, stealing a car, trying to stab someone.
A judge sent Killerbrew to a special school in Florida. At age 18, he returned to the District and City Lights School, a private facility for severely emotionally disturbed youths. The school, which provides intensive counseling, individualized instruction and enough structure to reign in even youngsters who have veered far off course, introduced him to carpentry. He hopes soon to become an apprentice.
"Once I'm in here, it's no problem," Killerbrew said in an interview at City Lights, at 1st and T streets NE. But outside school, his resolve would waver. He stayed out late at night, sometimes swayed by friends who said he was too old to be in school. But every morning, he said, "my grandmother just kept waking me up, and the school would call."
Classmate Walter Kelly's distractions loomed even larger. Fourteen months ago, he was on target to graduate from a private academy in Virginia, where he was sent after being expelled from a D.C. elementary school for violent behavior. But while home on a visit, he was arrested for stealing a car. His school refused to let him back in.
Kelly, like Killerbrew, has severe emotional and learning problems, and he also turned to City Lights. He thrived there but continued to falter on the streets. At a probation hearing in Prince George's County in February, his urine tested positive for marijuana use, and he was sent to jail for 30 days.
He called City Lights collect, asking if the school would let him make up the work.
"I wanted to show everybody that I could get my diploma . . . that I'm not stupid," said Kelly, 21.
On Tuesday, he and Killerbrew became the first students in City Lights' 17-year history to fulfill the requirements for regular D.C. diplomas.
Most students at the school leave with certificates of completion, meaning they have finished the work outlined in their special education plans. Ron Pettiway, executive director at City Lights, hopes the two graduates will motivate students who come after them.
"Just knowing that two more African American males in the District of Columbia were going to have that piece of paper -- it was the greatest moment of my life," Pettiway said. "For a minute, you can forget about all your headaches. This is your payoff."
Laura and Erinda Kemoli
Thomas Kemoli felt he had no choice. A retired accountant whose wife had died, he had little savings and few options in the moribund Kenyan economy. He could not afford to continue sending his twins, the youngest of his seven children, to school.
So his pastor in Nairobi called a colleague in the District, who asked his congregation to open its heart. Judith Ware responded.
She welcomed Laura and Erinda Kemoli into her knickknack-filled home in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast. She enrolled them in a strict parochial school their first year, and, when they were more acclimated to American teen culture, transferred them to her alma mater, the District's Eastern High School.
Once a week, Ware wrote the girls' father an account of their activities. "Thomas did not know me," Ware said. "He was putting his faith and trust in me to take these girls and raise them. I want them to be the best that they can be."
Laura graduated fifth in their class; Erinda was in the top 15. Both have received multiple scholarship offers. Laura will attend Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia this fall, and Erinda is headed to DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
Both said they were not scared coming to a new country. "It's easy, because you have someone," said Erinda, gesturing toward her sister. "But if you're alone. . . ."
Although they sometimes chafed under Ware's strict rules, the twins also thrived in the warm embrace of the woman and her family. They went three years without seeing their father or siblings. Then Ware's church, Michigan Park Christian, raised money so Thomas Kemoli could come to the United States this spring, spend six weeks getting reacquainted with his daughters and watch them graduate.
"It is an honor for me that they have done so well," Kemoli said. "It was not easy. But then, eventually, I realized that it was the right decision."
CAPTION: Bernie Williams, paralyzed in a car accident at age 5, attended D.C. high school classes in his wheelchair. At right is his mother, Edna Brown.
CAPTION: Judith Ware, left, adjusts a necklace for Erinda Kemoli, while Erinda's sister Laura and her father, Thomas, watch. Erinda and Laura Kemoli, 18-year-old twins, left their native Kenya at age 15 to attend school in Washington.
CAPTION: Davone Killerbrew, left, and Walter Kelley, both 21, attend their graduation ceremonies at City Lights School in the District.