Lorenzo Ramos-Diaz was sleeping when the phone rang, which accounts for the subdued reaction, considering what the familiar voice on the other end was saying.
I need you to come to North Star. Don’t you want to pick up your diploma?
Ramos-Diaz said OK, hung up and went back to sleep. Twenty minutes later he woke up, and played over the words he’d heard in the haze between unconsciousness and wakefulness. And his heart skipped a beat.
Did he say diploma?
The young man with the short, black hair jumped in the shower, threw on his clothes and rushed to North Star High School.
* * *
Ramos-Diaz was one of more than 2,000 students who graduated from Lincoln Public Schools in May.
Most of those students — 2,063 of them — are part of the 85.2 percent who took four years to get from freshman to gown-wearing senior.
It took Ramos-Diaz seven years, but the diploma he brought home from North Star says he’s one of them now. And the 204 members of the class of 2017 who didn’t make it to graduation but chose to stay in school would do well to heed his story.
His is a story about how to keep going when life pushes you off track. It’s about family, the sprawling one Ramos-Diaz was born into and the ones he found at work and school who refused to give up on him because they believed he was worth the effort.
“His story is of extraordinary courage,” said Steve Parker, the store director at the 27th and Superior streets Hy-Vee, where Ramos-Diaz works. “For us, we high-fived and clapped and all that stuff, because we were so happy to have him get this.”
* * *
His family moved to Lincoln when Ramos-Diaz was 14 — his mom and younger brother and cousins, the uncle and aunt who are like second parents.
He’d spent the majority of his young life in Denver with that family, but by middle school, he’d begun to hang with the wrong crowd, fancy himself a gang member, skip school, get in trouble.
“I was a rebel,” he said. “No one could tell me anything.”
Eventually he found himself facing six years of probation, a culmination of truancies and running away from the cops when they came upon them drawing graffiti in a park. His mom appealed to the judge, said they were moving to Lincoln with other extended family to get him in a better environment.
He got three years' probation instead — and a new home.
Things went better here: He attended Culler Middle School for eighth grade and was part of the school’s first soccer team. He had good friends and attended school regularly, though he found himself in detention for minor problems — talking back, not following directions.
He liked North Star High, too. He had good friends, he said, he played soccer, was getting decent grades, though he still found himself often in detention, clashing with the in-school suspension supervisor.
Belinda Shepard-Payne saw something in Ramos-Diaz, despite the “smart mouth” that often got him sent to her detention room.
“Lorenzo was one who stood out,” the now-retired supervisor said. “Lorenzo was one I knew had the potential but he didn’t have the backbone of someone pushing him. That’s what I did. He was such a good kid. He was intelligent, but he just had no direction.”
Things would get worse before they got better.
His junior year in high school, his mom and brother got their own apartment, and his aunt, uncle and cousins moved back to Denver. That was hard.
“I’d never been so long away from them,” he said.
Then his mom lost her job, they struggled to pay rent and other bills. Three months later, they were evicted.
“That’s the year it went all downhill,” he said.
They lived with an aunt, but it didn’t feel permanent or stable.
“In my mind we were homeless,” he said. “At that moment, when we got kicked out, I knew I had to grow up.”
He quit messing around, quit playing soccer, quit hanging out with friends.
“In my mind, if my friends found out I didn’t have a house, I thought they wouldn’t want to hang out with me.”
Ramos-Diaz, now 17, also quit going to school, making sure the calls about his absences went to his phone, not his mom’s.
About three months later, the school realized what was happening, and he found himself back in school, sitting in North Star coordinator Megan Kroll’s office.
She told him he didn’t look like himself, asked him what was going on. And he told her everything.
“It’s the first time I ever cried in school,” he said.
She connected him with the school social worker, who assured him he was not the only student in that situation. She introduced him to Bryan Seck, then the LPS homeless outreach specialist, who began the process of finding his family a place to live.
During those months of upheaval, there was one constant.
“I never missed work.”
* * *
Shortly before his mom lost her job, Ramos-Diaz landed a job sacking groceries at the north Lincoln Hy-Vee.
For more than a year, it was the family’s sole income.
By the beginning of 2014, his mom had found a job and Ramos-Diaz, his brother and mom had a place to live, and life became more stable.
But the May 2013 graduation date for his class had come and gone. He went back to school for a fifth year, but most of his friends were gone and he failed all but two classes.
“I thought work was more important,” he said. “In my mind, if I didn’t work, there would be no money to help me and I didn’t want anything to happen again.”
Kroll, Seck and others tried to help. They got him enrolled at Bryan Community, the alternative high school. He went some, but not enough. They gave him more chances. He didn’t follow through.
It was different at work. He’d been promoted from sacker to checker to stocker and his managers — who all thought he’d graduated — encouraged him to apply for a manager’s job. He didn’t, because he didn’t want them to know he hadn’t gotten his diploma.
The on-time graduation rate for Lincoln Public Schools students who graduated in 2017 remain…
Kroll shopped at that Hy-Vee, would see him and encourage him to go back to school. So did Seck, who hadn't seen Ramos-Diaz since he helped him find a place to live, but knew he hadn't graduated.
“Whenever I’d see him I’d give him crap about it,” Seck said.
You know what the cool kids do? He’d say. They go back to school.
Seck saw how successful Ramos-Diaz was at work, and called Jane Stavem, associate superintendent of instruction. She pulled his transcripts and found out he needed just 2.5 credit hours to graduate. And he was getting close to turning 21 — when he’d no longer be eligible for public school service.
Seck called the principal at Bryan, who agreed to set up an independent study course. Ramos-Diaz' job: Read 750 pages, write summaries for every 100 pages and turn them in.
Seck called Parker, the Hy-Vee store director, who was glad to help, as were the other managers who worked with Ramos-Diaz. Parker said he sits across from prospective employees and knows what a high school diploma means.
“I think Lorenzo’s story, so far, is a story of missed opportunity. I think it’s easy when you’re young not to see beyond your nose,” he said. “I think we saw the opportunity for what it was and just needed him to take heed.”
And so the Hy-Vee wine-tasting room turned into a study area. Seck picked the books and showed up every day an hour before Ramos-Diaz was supposed to start work. Both read the books. Ramos-Diaz wrote the summaries.
When he had 200 pages — and three months left — Ramos-Diaz told Seck he thought he could finish on his own. He did some, not all the work, and when Seck found out, he called the Hy-Vee managers.
That day, a manager paged Ramos-Diaz over the intercom, told him to come to the office.
Clock out, the manager told him. Go home and get your work.
Ramos-Diaz did, then headed to the tasting room to get to work.
Do it here, said his boss.
On May 2, the deadline for his classwork, Seck called the manager, and the manager texted Ramos-Diaz a reminder.
Turn it in.
* * *
Three days later, Seck woke Ramos-Diaz with a phone call, and handed him a diploma when he walked through the North Star doors.
“I just looked at it,” Ramos-Diaz said. “I couldn’t say anything.”
He’d told his mom not to get her hopes up. He’d convinced himself it wouldn’t happen, that he was going to be “just another Hispanic dropout.”
Instead, Principal Vann Price walked out of her office on that spring morning to congratulate him. So did a tearful Kroll. Shepard-Payne was there, too. They took pictures, and later came to Hy-Vee for a small, surprise graduation party.
Ramos-Diaz can’t believe how people stuck with him, he said, that Seck called the second-in-command at LPS for him, that school officials kept giving him chances, that his managers wouldn't give up.
“The Hy-Vee people here,” he said. “I’ve never seen people care about me so much.”
And now the high school graduate is an assistant manager at Hy-Vee considering the next chapter. This is his story, but lots of people played a part, Seck said.
“I just felt so much gratitude to LPS for putting together a plan for him, a supportive employer that let us work with him and for Lorenzo for sticking with it,” he said. “What a wonderful thing.”
Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSreist.