The bright blue afternoon sky matched the gowns that billowed as students made the long walk —four at a time — around the Locke High School football field.
They lined up behind the stage to receive their diplomas.
Raquel Michel managed not to shed a single tear as she and fellow counselor Stephanie Nunez-Marroquin called the names of the students they had gotten to know so well.
Michel put down the microphone and let out a joyous scream. Miller is going to UCLA in the fall to pursue his dream of working for NASA. He plans a double major in physics and aerospace engineering. Michel helped him raise the money he needed to move in, plus some extra, and she has promised to drop him off for orientation in August.
Rodriguez pumped her fists as she crossed the stage. But she still didn't know whether she had passed the mandatory high school exit exam.
Hernandez began her senior year 100 credits behind. Yet with the help and encouragement of the counselors, here she was — crossing the stage.
When the ceremony ended, Michel and Marroquin stood at the gate. One by one, students stopped to embrace their counselors, holding them tight before walking out, taking a piece of Locke's history with them.
That's when the counselors' tears begin to flow.
The graduates were the last remaining students who had attended the South Los Angeles school before it became a charter three years ago. The "original" Locke students, as they've come to be known, were placed in the Launch to College Academy, a school within a school that shrank with each passing class and, with this graduation, now disappears altogether.
The counselors, too, are bidding farewell to the school. Along with their principal, they are moving to Jordan High to begin anew.
"It's kind of a graduation for me too," Michel said. "This is not just a culminating event for the students, but a culminating event for anyone who invested in the transformation. We kind of, in a sense, grew up with them."
The counseling office at the Launch to College Academy is a classroom — Room 113 — divided like a cafeteria plate. One half is open, with tables and chairs and a gaggle of students who hang out there; in the other half are two offices with walls low enough for Michel and Marroquin to talk to each other in their own code.
The two counselors keep track of students' classes and grades, help them stay on track for college and find ways to pay for it, and offer a safe place to talk out the drama of high school life.
On Monday morning, June 20 — four days before graduation — the room was uncharacteristically quiet. Michel and Marroquin relished the silence because they knew it wouldn't last. Grades had been submitted the night before, and today they would have to break the news to students who hadn't met the requirements to walk with their classmates on graduation day.
The lull ended with Belen Rodriguez. She said she had come in to find out about her grades (she passed) and see if the scores for the state exit exam that stood between her and Cal State Dominguez Hills had come in (not yet). The counselors would let her cross the stage even if her scores didn't come in; she could pick up her diploma later, if she passed.
But, really, she was there to hang out. Rodriguez, who has wavy dark hair and a wily smile, was always weaseling her way into the counseling office to rag on Marroquin because her favorite soccer team, El Salvador, had been slaughtered the night before or to teach Michel how to fist-pump, "Jersey Shore" style.
Soon, the chairs were filled, the room rattling with its typical din. And the counselors' offices were overflowing with students waiting to hear their fate.
There were tears of joy and tears of disappointment.
One student couldn't believe he was getting a diploma. He left Michel's office, made it to the hall and then returned. He had to ask again. You're graduating, she confirmed.
Another, with braids frosted blond and three-toned eye makeup like Neapolitan ice cream, had auditioned that morning to sing a gospel interpretation of the school anthem — "We are Saints and we are proud/So let's stand and sing along" — at the graduation, only to discover in the afternoon that she was three classes short of getting her diploma.
A student with a faux-hawk had a D that jeopardized his plan to attend Cal State Northridge. His teacher offered makeup work after school to bring the grade up to a C, but teenage pride was getting in the way. Michel cajoled him for nearly an hour before she sealed the deal with a pinky promise. (After school, Michel pulled aside one of the boy's friends and asked him to check up on the student.)
Next came Mary Hernandez. She walked in clutching two sheets of paper, straining to hold back tears.
Locke had changed quite a bit over the last few years. There was a time, Hernandez and her classmates say, when they could get an A just for being in class when the teacher called roll.
Hernandez knows, because she was notorious for walking out of class. Marroquin, her counselor, first met her when she was roaming the halls.
She started her senior year behind by 100 credits — not quite half the number required to graduate. On this day, she carried the grades for the final two classes she needed.
As Hernandez walked into the office, Marroquin's eyes welled with tears and she rushed to embrace the girl.
"I'm so proud of you, Mary," Marroquin said, laughing and crying as she squeezed her tight. "It was a long shot, and you did it."
Kelvin Miller was another success story. He has a full scholarship to UCLA but still needed $400 for housing and someone to help him move in for the fall semester. That's why he was in Michel's office that morning. The two of them were trying to figure things out.
There had been moments when he was close to abandoning his rocket-science dreams to find a job or go to community college. Michel wouldn't let him give up. She went to teachers and friends to raise the money Kelvin needed. And as for moving him in, she's already saved the date in her phone's calendar.
The day before graduation, Principal Veronica Coleman called a final staff meeting.
She went through slides noting the progress the academy had made. Attendance had improved, and so had the graduation rate. The senior class had 379 students; 256 would earn a diploma, and 214 of them were headed to college. An additional 72 were allowed to cross the stage but did not receive a diploma; they still had credits to make up or were waiting for state exam scores.
Locke was conceived as an olive branch to Watts after the riots of 1965. But the campus has had a checkered past — high dropout rates and high turnover of teachers and administrators. The campus reflected its bad times, its walls covered in graffiti, bathrooms controlled by gang members. Fights were common, and students said it was a struggle to get the classes they needed to apply to college.
The school was the first that the Los Angeles Unified School District handed to a charter operator. By many accounts, it is safer, cleaner and more orderly than before.
The faculty reflected on these changes at the staff meeting.
Michel read a letter from the family of a student who had died after an illness last year; the faculty had raised money to help the family. Marroquin brought a stack of notes from her students, including a long letter from Hernandez, thanking the counselor for cheering her on — and reminding her of a promised dinner if Hernandez graduated.
Michel and Marroquin, Los Angeles natives, both received master's degrees in school counseling from Loyola Marymount University. Michel, 29, was hired when Green Dot, the charter operatior, took over in 2008. Marroquin, 28, arrived the next year and was teamed up with Michel this year.
They encountered young people who'd grown up too quickly. There was the student who missed the SAT because she was having a baby. And the one who lifted her shirt to reveal her first tattoo, the one she'd gotten when she was 13.
Michel said she always had to remember they were children. And, as children, sometimes all they needed was love.
Even when she chastised her students, she did so with affection:
I love you, but you need to get out of my office.
I love you, but you need to check your attitude.
I love you, but you better get off that scooter.
Before she knew she would have a place at Jordan, Michel was offered a position as an adviser at USC — a dream job — but turned it down. She would have had to start before Locke's graduation.
"If I didn't come here, I don't know who I would be," Michel said. "If it weren't for Locke, I don't think I'd be so confident."
She started to cry.
"Sometimes you go home and think, 'Am I doing the right thing for these kids?' "
She would be back at school the next day, when hundreds of them would cross the stage.