The hot dogs are a metaphor, or maybe the beginning of a story on its way to a metaphor.
They were real for Angel Tran, a bland, rubbery, unimaginative and not-so-healthy meal she ate every night when she was younger, boiled in a pan on the stove by a foster mother for her and the seven other foster care kids who lived there.
The home was not a good place, said Tran, the only time she ever felt like a ticket to a paycheck in the welfare system.
One night her foster parents got into a heated argument.
Tran and the other foster kids huddled in a basement bedroom, away from the anger and the prospect of hot dogs upstairs, and talked about what it would be like to come home to a wonderful feast.
Eventually, she left that home, found a much, much better one, a permanent one with a family that became her family and parents who have loved and guided her.
And so, years later, she looked back on that night in the basement and realized what it meant.
Nobody was going to make her a feast. She was going to have do it herself.
That’s the metaphor she’ll use from the podium Sunday at Pinnacle Bank Arena when she addresses her Lincoln High School graduating class, a way to describe the challenges they'll face as graduates and the obstacles they may have to overcome to reach their goals.
The 18-year-old will not be starting from scratch.
She spent four years on Lincoln High’s newspaper staff, the last three as editor, was president of the school’s DECA chapter, on the track team for three years and is on her way to Kansas State with scholarships totaling more than $60,000.
Greg Keller, her Lincoln High journalism teacher, is not surprised.
“She is a force to be reckoned with,” he said. “She is unstoppable. When she sets her mind on something, it happens.”
Tran is ready, armed with dreams and goals, ambitions — and a lesson from her days of hot dog dinners.
“If I want that feast, I have to go cook it myself.”
* * *
The challenges began before the state placed Tran and her sister Jamie, six years her senior, in foster care.
They were born in Sacramento, California, into what Tran remembers as a happy home. The pictures tell that story, anyway: family snapshots at car shows and aquariums, at the beach and in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I was the youngest,” she said. “From the looks of it I was really happy.”
When she was 4 or 5 years old, her parents divorced, and things spiraled.
Her mom took the girls and moved from place to place across the country, staying with family or friends until they landed in Lincoln.
Tran started school at McPhee Elementary, where she was placed in an English Language Learner class for a short time, though she doesn’t remember speaking Vietnamese.
But she missed so much school that within months the state got involved.
Caseworkers found poor living conditions: a cockroach-infested apartment with dirty dishes and rotten food and unwashed laundry. The girls had severe head lice, and the state removed them from their mother’s care.
Over the next months, Jamie and Angel bounced from one foster home to another, then back to their mom’s care. For much of that time, they were apart.
“That was terrifying,” she said. “I always cried for my mom and sister.”
Early on, the school nurse at McPhee took the children in, and Tran says she will be forever grateful to her for the role she played in helping Tran discover her faith.
“She brought God in my life,” Tran said. “That’s such a big part of who I am.”
She stayed in other foster homes with kind families — people she's invited to her graduation, and then, on Aug. 10, 2010, the spiraling stopped.
Tran calls it her “gotcha day” — when Jen and Brad Buresh became Angel and Jamie’s parents, and Layla, now 16, and Caroline, now 12, became their sisters.
“I moved in with a goldfish and a suitcase. My sister had a suitcase,” Tran said. “It clicked with them from the get-go.”
From the day Jen Buresh met her, Angel was articulate and thoughtful and Jen said she knew she would go on to do something special.
The couple encouraged the girls to use their past as a stepping stone, to learn from their experiences — both good and bad — to get where they want to go.
Tran remembers such lessons often were delivered with metaphors. She's always remembered one involving Newton’s Law, something about objects in motion, external forces and equal and opposite reactions.
“My parents are big on metaphors,” she said.
She has little contact with her biological mom, though her sister — who was like a mom and is now a best friend — maintains a closer relationship.
Some years ago, her “forever family” took a trip to California and called her biological father to see if he’d like to meet with them. Two of the Trans’ aunts, their grandfather and an uncle showed up. Not their father.
“It was really heartbreaking at the time,” Angel said.
She’s never really been in touch with the Asian part of her heritage, she said, and that’s something she’d like to explore, and the extended family they met on that trip were wonderful, have stayed in touch and sent her graduation cards.
She’s spoken to her dad a couple of times, they’re friends on Facebook. But he’s got another family, she said, and she realized some time ago, she’s got all the family she needs, too.
“There’s a lot of joy in the present,” she said. “My identity is so much more than the blood that flows through my veins.”
* * *
Lincoln High is part of her identity, Tran said, the experiences and people there who helped shape the young woman she’s become.
First, she had to survive middle school. She had begun writing by then — including a story about her adoptive family for a project by the Hildegard Center for the Arts published in a book called “Heroes Among Us.”
But she hated most of middle school and was determined to make high school a better experience.
“Going into high school I decided everything was going to change,” she said. “I wanted it to be like ‘High School Musical.’ That’s what I thought it would be like. It’s not.”
Turns out, it was much better.
Lincoln High, she said, changed her world view, helped shape her political views and to have empathy for others, including the classmates caught in a divisive political climate that often puts immigrants and religious and ethnic minorities in the crosshairs.
She loves the diversity at the school — racially, socio-economically, academically.
“It’s beautiful. It’s so beautiful,” she said. “I wish people in Lincoln could see that.”
She enrolled in a photojournalism class as a freshman and for the next three years was on the Advocate staff — leading the newspaper staff as editor.
She found a mentor in Keller, who she credits with helping her find her voice, teaching her to be confident in her opinions, to go after what she wants, to show up when she’s needed — and when she’s not needed, that proper punctuation will take you far.
Keller says Tran already had much of what will make her successful when she walked into the classroom.
He’s watched her grow, has been impressed with how constructively she takes criticism — something rare in writers, especially teen writers — but also sees she knows what she wants, isn’t afraid to push for it, keeps moving forward.
“I have no fear for Angel going out into the world,” Keller said. “Pity the people who stand in her way, really.”
She discovered another passion at Lincoln High: DECA. As president of the student organization focused on leadership, entrepreneurship, marketing, finance, hospitality and management, she traveled across the country for conferences and competitions, ran promotional and service campaigns and community outreach.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” she said.
She was interested in Lincoln High's International Baccalaureate Program, but opted for advanced-placement classes instead because it gave her more time for journalism and DECA. That — and two jobs — is also why she decided not to continue competing in track as a senior.
She's had challenges along the way — including Jen Buresh's cancer diagnosis a year ago.
Tran was just starting track season, she said, and it was terrible and hard for her whole family, but her mom is cancer-free now and doing great.
So Tran will chase her dreams: making policy as U.S. Secretary of Education. Starting a nonprofit that flips houses (she’s sharing that dream with her dad, a contractor) in low-income neighborhoods and turning them into community centers with a range of services.
She met Betsy DeVos during the education secretary’s visit to Nebraska last year and did not shy away from asking questions. She accompanied her grandpa — a school board member in Arlington — on a trip to the nation's capital to talk with the Nebraska representatives. She’s served on advisory committees for the district and her high school.
Tran plans to study education at Kansas State, made easier with a four-year, $40,000 Carstens scholarship from the Foundation for LPS and a Dell Scholarship, because she thinks it's important to branch out beyond Nebraska.
She used to fear moving because it happened so often. Not anymore.
“I finally have a place that I can call home,” she said. “I realized my real home will always be here.”