By JEFF BARLIS
MIAMI – It’s hard to miss Nicole Meneses at Pneuma Christian Academy. If she’s not front and center in every photo on every social media post, she’s stealing the show with her exuberance.
Her smile, so wide it almost looks painful, is full of braces. But she doesn’t have the slightest hint of self-consciousness.
“I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’m thankful every day to be here.”
The happiest student at the school says you wouldn’t recognize her before Pneuma. She was bullied, depressed, and hated going to her neighborhood school.
Then her mother found out about a scholarship that would change their lives, and that led them to Pneuma.
What started as teases and taunts in first grade, turned into a campaign of insults and exclusion in second grade. Nicole’s school was a half-mile walk from the villa where she lived with her parents and older sister. It was a large, newly built K-8 with more than 1,500 students. She felt lost.
“They said I was ugly, fat, dumb,” she said, recalling the boys and girls who tormented her daily.
She hid in bathrooms or found an empty classroom to cry in. It was a sprawling checkerboard of a campus with green squares between each building. There were lots of places to hide.
“If it was during class, I would ask to get water and then go walk,” she said. “I would call my mom to leave early, and I’d go home and cry to her.”
“I hated it. It was so stressful, I couldn’t concentrate. I almost failed second grade.”
Every day, Nicole tried to find an excuse to not go. Her mom, Rosalaris Perez, started sweetly singing a song of sarcastic encouragement in Spanish:
My foot hurts
My stomach hurts
My head hurts
I don’t want to go to school
I don’t want to go to school
Nicole’s response was always the same: “OK, Mom, it’s a beautiful school, but only for skinny girls.”
Her self-esteem was in shambles.
“I didn’t hate myself,” she said, “but I felt different. I was just living with a lot of sadness in my life.”
With every tearful afternoon, Rosalaris, an affectionate and fiery Cuban immigrant, grew more frustrated. She saw Nicole’s report cards littered with F’s, D’s and C’s and went in to complain about the bullying. There was always a language barrier. Once, her temper flared, and she was escorted off campus.
She knew what had to be done.
A year earlier, Nicole’s older sister also needed a way out of her neighborhood high school. She struggled so badly and got so depressed, she attempted suicide.
Rosalaris felt trapped. She worked part-time as a receptionist and clerk at a physical therapy clinic. Her boyfriend – Nicole’s father Carlos Meneses – was a swimming teacher. They couldn’t afford private school. Then an acquaintance told them about the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps low-income families afford tuition.
After applying, Rosalaris got a list of nearby schools and went through it alphabetically until she found Pneuma. It’s a small school surrounded by two large green fields and filled with bright colors and warm, caring teachers inside.
While she was in second grade struggling, Nicole saw how much happier her sister was and how quickly she turned herself around. Nicole was overjoyed when her scholarship was awarded. In third grade at Pneuma, a sense of relief washed over her. She achieved honor roll throughout the year.
Making friends wasn’t as easy, because she was nervous at first. But soon she let her guard down, made friends, and found a home. There were no more excuses in the morning – Nicole was in love with going to school.
Sometimes, on mornings she feels tired, she sings her mom’s song to herself. It’s something she laughs about now.
“I’m thankful every day,” she said. “Here, they always talk about how important it is to love yourself. I accept myself now, and I love myself just the way I am.”
It shows up every day. It’s the way she helps other students. It’s pushing herself to new heights, like singing in front of the school.
“She’s a star here,” principal Yohanna Ramirez said. “She’s so happy. She’s not the same student. She’s a leader. She’s confident now, and we can see it.”
What Rosalaris sees is Nicole comes home happy every day. It’s a profound change, one that’s more welcome than the academic honors that continue to roll in.
“I prefer my daughter’s happiness over straight A’s,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “I get emotional, because if there is no Step Up for me, there is no Pneuma for Nicole.”
About Pneuma Christian Academy
Opened in 2009 and affiliated with non-denominational Pneuma Church, the school expanded from its roots as an online and homeschool hub to serve pre-K through 12. There are 92 students enrolled, including 75 with Step Up For Students scholarships. Curriculum includes Bob Jones University Press and Ignitia for elementary school. The elementary school is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Pneuma administers the MAP Growth test three times a year. Tuition is $7,031.75 for Kindergarten and 1st grade; $7,119.75 for 2nd-5th; $7,265.50 for middle school; and $7,414 for high school.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.