Every morning this summer, Josh Dulin got a wake-up call to make it to school on time.
"Good morning, Josh," administrative intern Ellen Reilly would say. "Are you awake?"
"Yeah," he'd respond. And then he'd hang up, going back to sleep on some days and scrambling to get ready on others.
Yesterday, Reilly placed her last 6:30 a.m. phone call to the 19-year-old. Hours later came the moment she and so many others had been pushing and prodding him toward: graduation.
Donning a tie borrowed from a guidance counselor, Dulin stood before his summer school classmates at Chantilly High School and introduced the ceremony's keynote speaker: Jack D. Dale, the new Fairfax County school superintendent.
In his first speech to graduates in Fairfax, Dale gave the senior class its send-off.
"It's your dream. It's your wide-open canvas," he said. "There is no limit."
In June, thousands of students across the Washington area heard similar words as they enacted the same rite, many taking for granted the piece of paper certifying their high school education. Yesterday, the crowd of about 50 seniors leaving Chantilly's summer school exhibited no such complacency.
Some had failed the Virginia Standards of Learning exams, standardized tests needed for the first time this year to graduate. Some flunked or never took English 12 or World History 1 or another required course. And others, such as Dulin, could enumerate vicissitudes that just kept getting in the way of graduating.
At age 8, Dulin ran down the stairs of his Indianapolis home to find his mother lying in a pool of blood. According to newspaper accounts, he told detectives his mother's last words were "No, don't. No, don't." His older sister, Lindsey, called 911 from a neighbor's phone and asked: "Can we get some police, please? My daddy killed my mother."
Their mother, Terri Crowe, was shot to death in February 1993 by her estranged husband, their stepfather. The children went to live with their grandmother in Herndon, and so began Dulin's rebellion, according to family, friends and Dulin himself.
"He was angry. He was cutting up in school," said Jeanette Morrman, Dulin's grandmother, who now lives in Florida. "He had the desire not to be told what to do. It's been a struggle."
In his memories of Herndon, Dulin brightens only when he speaks of playing junior varsity basketball, a sport his mother loved. The rest of the time, he recalls, he slept in, skipped school and picked fights with everyone, from his teachers to Morrman to the kids on the street.
In January 2003, nearly a decade after he arrived in Northern Virginia, Dulin left his grandmother's house, dropping out of Herndon High School in the middle of his senior year, his report cards lined with F's. He went to live in Morgantown, W.Va., with a high school pal, Douglas Smith, then a sophomore at West Virginia University. He worked as a telemarketer while Smith kept encouraging him to go back to school.
"Your grades aren't that bad," Smith would say. "You can be out here, too."
That fall, Dulin obliged, enrolling at Fairfax County's Mountain View Alternative High School and taking a job at Champs, a sports bar and restaurant. He lived with different friends, staying in spare rooms, on couches, often the floor. With the help of administrators at Mountain View, Dulin applied to colleges where he had a shot at playing basketball as a walk-on. He got into Fairmont State University, just minutes from Smith's campus.
But in February, when he ran out of money, Dulin dropped out of Mountain View to take on more hours at the restaurant and get a job as a babysitter at a gym. He vowed to return to summer school to finish his lone requirement of English 12 so he would still be able to take Fairmont up on its offer.
He continued hopping from house to house.
His recalcitrant attitude and his living situation, however, posed a problem when Dulin arrived at Chantilly's summer school session, said Assistant Principal Debbie Hernandez. She noticed Dulin's frequent tardiness and wondered if there was a way he could find just one family to stay with, at least during summer school.
Enter Alice Smith, Douglas's mother.
"He just needed a place to stay to go for his dream," said Alice Smith, who has housed Dulin for about a month now. "He just needed someone behind him."
The school also offered Reilly's wake-up call services, and guidance counselor Mark Ausbrooks worked with Dulin to figure out how to pay for college, which he begins on Monday. Ausbrooks also lent Dulin the tie he wore for yesterday's ceremony.
The approach is not uncommon in summer school, Hernandez said.
"I've got a ton of kids like this," she said.
In the summer school office's conference room, she points to a stash of oatmeal, Pop-Tarts and juice. Children from low-income families can't qualify for free or reduced-priced meals during summer school, so the staff comes up with ways to feed them.
This week, as school wound down and students prepared for the SOL exams and finals, heads often collapsed onto desks in slumber, and teachers struggled to keep students focused on the curriculum. They are in class from 7:30 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. and must complete 700 minutes of instruction time.
"They're so ready to move on now," said Reilly, who teaches sign language at Falls Church High School during the school year.
Even Dulin, who knew just a few days were between him and college, didn't know how he would make it to Monday.
"I can't wait to leave this place," he said. "I need to get away from this area. I'm taking my life with me."
His life's possessions: clothes, a DVD player, a small dorm refrigerator donated by Alice Smith.
As she watched him graduate yesterday, Smith said she was overcome with the same worry she has had for her own children. Dulin secured loans and grants up to $15,000, about $800 short of the amount he needs this year. Should he drop a class to pay less in tuition? Should he switch to a smaller meal plan?
Alice Smith said she has assured Dulin it will all turn out if he works hard enough. Over and over, she has said: "You're paying for your education. There's no messing up here."
Dulin said he is trying to heed the maternal advice. His mother might have said the same thing.
When asked about his mother, Dulin rolls up his sleeve to show a tattoo with the words "R.I.P. Mom."
"I'm making her proud," he said. "I made it happen, but it's only the first step."
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.