By JEFF BARLIS
Middle school is tough for a lot of kids. For Valentin Mendez, it was hell.
At night, he would try to sleep on the floor of the downtown Miami gas station where his mother worked the graveyard shift.
In the mornings, he’d think about who was going to beat him up that day.
After school, he’d clutch his mom and cry.
“It was chaos,” he said.
Non-stop bullying left Valentin so hopeless, he dropped out of his neighborhood school in sixth grade and moved to Nicaragua to be with his father. That could have been the end of a heartbreaking story.
But thanks to a scholarship, Valentin got a chance to start over at a different school – and to turn everything around.
“The scholarship,” said Valentin’s mother, Jeannethe Ruiz, “saved my son.”
Valentin was born in Miami but lived in Nicaragua with his father, Roberto Mendez, from age 3 to 9. The tall, chubby kid with glasses was an easy target for bullies. That he didn’t speak much English made it worse.
Money was tight, so Valentin and his mom lived in her sister’s apartment in a rough neighborhood near downtown. While Jeannethe worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Valentin could hear the sound of gunfire and drug raids. She decided to have him sleep on a thin comforter inside the gas station’s plate-glass booth.
“The floor was very cold,” Valentin said, “but at least I knew I was secure.”
That wasn’t the case at school. He lasted a month before mom transferred him to another district middle school. He made it six weeks there.
“Bullies were everywhere,” he said. “I saw people doing drugs. … They were smoking. I saw cocaine as well. It was heavy stuff.”
One rainy morning, a boy spiked a football into a puddle, drenching Valentin with water and dirt. Other kids laughed. Valentin was crushed.
His mom had enough when Valentin told her about boys who terrorized students from beneath a staircase. Valentin spoke out and got punched in the back of his head.
“They grabbed him and beat him up,” Jeannethe said, “and no one from the school said anything to me.”
Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.
“I wasn’t thinking about returning. I just needed to get away, the farther the better,” he said. “The moment the plane touched ground I felt secure.”
Just being with his grandparents and father was a comfort. So was grandma’s red beans and rice.
Valentin figured he’d go to school there, maybe become a construction worker. He had given up on any American dreams.
But back in Miami, his mother was making plans. A neighbor told her about a private school – La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana. Jeannethe walked by the cluster of vanilla-colored buildings one day and saw a banner for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income students pay tuition. She applied that day.
The family flew Valentin back to Miami to visit the new school and take an assessment test. Between the lost months in his neighborhood schools and the brief time in Nicaragua, he had missed most of the first half of the school year. He still wasn’t speaking much English.
The principal, Melissa Rego, broke the news that Valentin would start in fifth grade. His spirits sank. His mother cried. But Rego had a goal to make Valentin a reader by year’s end, and she determined that having one teacher in fifth grade instead of several teachers in sixth would give him the attention he needed.
There was also the issue of rehabilitating Valentin’s traumatized psyche.
“His self-esteem was shot,” Rego recalled. “The first two weeks were rough. He refused to speak. Val was angry. Val was aggressive. He would lash out at anything.”
It took him a year to get over the flashbacks of being bullied. The intensity of his memories faded as he felt the embrace of his new teacher and classmates.
“I was always the big, chubby kid, but now it broke the ice,” he said. “They looked up to me. They would ask how tall I was. They were always interested in me. They wanted to be my friend, and it felt weird.”
By the end of the first year at La Progresiva, things were better. Valentin’s father rejoined the family that December. Safety and stability became normal again.
“I felt complete,” Valentin said.
At the end of sixth grade, his SAT 10 scores showed he was on grade level for the first time. Rego called him and his mother in to her office separately. Both cried, fearing he was being kicked out. Instead, he was promoted to eighth grade.
“I was speechless,” Valentin said.
Rego’s plan had worked. The school had unlocked his ability to learn. The next year he earned nearly straight A’s.
Valentin made deep, lasting friendships with his new classmates, who inspired him with their work ethic and grades. He graduated with honors and a 3.78 weighted GPA. He also won a science honor and was recognized for completing 300 hours of community service.
“I always knew I was a good student. I just felt I was in the wrong place,” Valentin said. “Getting a scholarship from Step Up For Students gave me a new beginning, a new opportunity in life, to become someone I knew I could become.”
Today, Valentin is a 19-year-old freshman at Miami Dade College, majoring in accounting. He’s no longer chubby and stands 6-foot-5. His dreams are growing bigger than ever. He’s trying to get straight A’s and join an honor society by the end of his first semester. He aims to go to Vanderbilt University.
Valentin’s primary motivation remains his family. His parents never went to college. Dad works in his brother’s tire shop. Mom still works the night shift at the gas station.
“I need to get her out of there,” Valentin said. “I need to get them to retire. I tell them that all the time. They know why I go to school. They support me and I’ll support them. We’re all we have.”
Valentin said he doesn’t regret anything that happened to him. It taught him to believe in himself. It also serves as a lesson to others.
“If I can get away from that, many other kids can as well,” he said. “I just say one thing about my story: Anything is possible.”
About La Progresiva Presbyterian School
Originally founded in Cuba in 1900, the school was taken over by the communist regime in 1961. Ten years later it opened in Little Havana in Miami. Today, the school is accredited by AdvancEd and Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 660 K-12 students, including 620 on Step Up scholarships. Grades K-8 use the BJU Press curriculum, while 9-12 uses Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin. The school provides iPads for all high school students. The school administers the MAP test three times a year. Tuition for grades K-5 is $540 a month, while 6-12 is $571 a month.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.