Yasmine Arrington, who graduated last year, hugs her former Latin teacher Jessica Levknecht, in the hallway of Banneker High School. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

On their first day together, mostly what they did was stare at each other.

“I just kept looking at this man, a man who looks like me,” Yasmine Arrington told me. ”And he just kept looking back at me saying, ‘You look just like me. But with hair.’ ”

Yasmine hadn’t seen her father in 16 years, not since she was 3. He’d been in and out of prison for most of her life.

By the time they reunited this year, she was a freshman at Elon University in North Carolina.

His incarceration was a constant shadow over her life — an absence compounded by the death of her mother five years ago. Her grandmother raised her.

Every time the subject of “Daddy” came up, she had to make a decision whether to explain his whereabouts, or just shake her head as though his absence was something more conventional, like a divorce. But in that near-daily dilemma, she also forged her strength.

Last week, Yasmine stood on the stage at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, her alma mater, and before the entire school she said the word she’d avoided for so long: Incarcerated.

I met Yasmine two years ago, when she was part of a program in the District called LearnServe, which was somewhat like a day camp for aspiring social-issues wonks.

They were doing their presentations when I came in, poster boards, charts and PowerPoints on the various nonprofit groups they would create: recycling in the jungle, potlucks to mingle nationalities, and so forth.

Yasmine stood out because her proposal was so real, personal and raw. Her fantasy nonprofit, she explained, would be a college scholarship fund for kids whose parents are incarcerated.

She got excellent scores on her presentation, but that wasn’t the end of her story.

Throughout her senior year in high school and freshman year at Elon, Yasmine chiseled away at her dream. A scholarship student herself, she formed a board, held a kickoff event (Grandma cooked) and started raising money for the nonprofit, called ScholarCHIPS.

And she finally met her father, Tony Arrington. It was strange in many ways. “He had so many tattoos,” she said. “All over.”

A skull with wings, a naked woman and Yasmine herself.

“I have her whole face on my arm. And it says ‘Daddy’s Girl’ and ‘My Flesh and Blood,’ surrounded by tulips and roses,” Tony Arrington told me. “The whole top half of my arm is like an ode to Yaz.”

He’s proud of her. “She could’ve been anything,” said Arrington, who has found work as a cook at a country club and a Golden Corral restaurant. “She could’ve been a whore. She could’ve been a drug addict. But my child is a college student.”

Arrington is living with his mother in North Carolina, and that is the part Yasmine likes best, visiting and surrounding herself with cousins, aunts and uncles. Reconstructing her family.

Last month, she returned to her home town with nearly $13,000 to give away to students whose situations are like hers. Nine graduating seniors applied for the money, and all had heartbreaking stories that they recounted in essays.

There was the girl who will never forget the day in her sophomore year of high school when her home was raided and her mother was taken away in handcuffs. And another whose parents were locked up when she was an infant. She was raised by an 85-year-old grandparent.

“I really wish they were here for birthdays over the years and even to attend my high school school graduation,” she wrote.

Or the young man born to a 15-year-old mother, who left behind “fairy-tale” memories while he struggled with cerebral palsy and a strict aunt. “Over the past few years, my mother has been in and out of jail,” he wrote. “She will be released shortly after I graduate in 2012, and I want to be able to tell her, ‘Mom, I did it.’ ”

Yasmine had a hard time picking one.

“Was it harder for someone who never knew their parents? Who grew up always knowing they were incarcerated, and that was that? Like me?” she asked. “Or is it more disruptive when everything changes and suddenly, this person who was always there for you — Mom — is hauled off in the middle of the night? Like that sophomore?”

She is enthusiastic, animated, a big personality with big ideas, big thoughts and big gestures.

Right after she finished her last exams, Yasmine set to work picking through the scholarship essays, weighing the gravity of each situation, the potential of each student. She went through Federal Bureau of Prisons records to make sure each parent was, indeed, locked up.

Family secrets were revealed in stark terms: burglary, grand larceny, assault with a deadly weapon.

She scheduled interviews with each student. After years of feeling alone and not talking about her father’s prison life, Yasmine spent days talking about nothing but. She and the scholarship applicants talked about hopes and dreams and aspirations. And what it’s like to have to strip all the metal from your pockets and purse in order to visit a parent in prison.

She narrowed it to four winners, and picked four runners-up who would get small checks to put toward their books. (The only non-winner was disqualified when the application wasn’t complete.)

The first runner-up award went to a student at Banneker, and Yasmine delivered it personally.

“I am here to recognize one of our honorees, who is one of your very own,” she told the graduating seniors and their families. “She is a real young lady who has endured real struggles, with an incarcerated father,” she said, pausing a little. “Just like myself.

“Though the road has been rough, she has made it and we are so very proud of her.”

And To’Nia Thomas came to the podium, where Yasmine handed her a bouquet.

Tedra Williams, one of the school’s guidance counselors, cheered.

She leaned over and told me how proud she was of Yasmine and many of Banneker’s graduates.

“I know how hard they worked to get there,” Williams said. “You can’t just see it, but some of these students dealt with homelessness, they lost their homes in the middle of the year, stayed with friends so they could finish here. Or, like Yasmine, their parents were incarcerated. Lots of struggles.”

Yasmine left the stage, hugging everyone on her way out, and the awards continued, presented by the businessman from the Elks Club, and the smiling lady from the Economic Club of Washington.

Look to the future, bright young scholars!

And don’t forget what you overcame to get there.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. Or e-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.
com. To read my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.