Graduate, 19, triumphs over her past

May 31, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Nineteen-year-old Michelle Hamby says she's the happiest person in the world -- and she has reason to be.

On Thursday, she will graduate from Atholton High School, having finished a five-year roller coaster period in which she dropped out of school, turned for a time to marijuana and alcohol, and returned to work so hard that she made the honor roll 10 of the last 12 quarters.

She is one of about 2,000 high school seniors who will graduate from Howard County schools in a series of nine commencement ceremonies beginning today and concluding Friday.

"It means a lot to me that I'm graduating -- probably more than to any other student in this school," says Michelle, a trim, spunky teen-ager from Highland. "I've finally accomplished something I set my eyes on."

Jim Wright, her former history teacher, calls her "a real success story."

"When she came back and repeated her sophomore year, I could see a real difference," he says. "She was concerned about her work, she was focused. She worked hard."

Only a few years ago, Michelle's story seemed just the opposite.

An average student at the end of eighth grade, she turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the emotional trauma of a childhood friend's death in a car accident in 1989.

"I remember I'd sit in my room late at night and cry and cry and cry," she says now.

Not knowing how to accept the loss, she began associating with those she describes as "punks, druggies, burnouts." She eventually dropped out of school, on her 16th birthday, in March 1990.

"I was barely coming anyway," she says.

After that, Michelle worked two jobs -- part time with a veterinarian and full time with a printing company. The world of work, she decided, wasn't quite for her. She discovered that she was too young to have so much responsibility. She wanted to become a teen-ager again.

"I couldn't be a teen and work," she says. "I had too many responsibilities and I didn't like it. It's not that easy out there in the world of work."

She hesitantly returned to school in September 1991. "The first day back was the hardest for me," she remembers.

But with the help of an ex-boyfriend who had prodded her to return to school and do well, she started settling down and studying. To her surprise, "school meant more to me," she says. "I actually enjoyed learning. I learned that teachers are people, too. I got to know them much better."

Others began to recognize her as a good student.

"I found it flattering that people came to me to ask me to copy my work," she says with a big grin. "No one did that before."

This summer Michelle plans to continue working in her father's grocery cart repair business and in the fall enroll at Howard Community College. She wants to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of those who believed in her.

Her mother, Judy Hamby, is proud of her. Although Mrs. Hamby tried persuading her daughter to return to school, she knew the decision had to be Michelle's.

"I feel she did a really good thing by finishing high school," she says. "She made it through. She did good."

Looking back on her experience, Michelle admits that, at first, "I was naive. I was ignorant to the importance of education. I took it as a joke. I am glad to be graduating. It means a lot."

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