Valedictorian overcame difficult path
Home and school troubles once made her doubt she'd graduate
As a girl, Myrtle Nickerson didn't have a dream job.
"I wanted to have a job that was bringing in some kind of money," the 18-year-old recalls, days before her high school graduation. "Where I was staying, we needed it bad."
Where she was staying changed often. Motels, abandoned houses, couches. With her mom, her aunt, her sister, her friend.
Her mom did drugs and drank, Nickerson says, and the teenager isn't sure of her real dad's name. "Everyone knows him as Dog," she says.
A few years after Nickerson had a baby, at age 15, she tried to bring her dad some photographs. That's when she learned he was dead.
"At first, I didn't know how to feel," Nickerson says. "I'm like, 'OK, I'm not going to feel anything 'cause I didn't really know him.' Then it just sank.
"It's like, 'This is your dad. You're trying to get a relationship with your dad, and he's gone. Graduation's about to come up, and your dad can't be there.' "
There was a time when Nickerson didn't expect to get a high school diploma. But this Saturday, the brown-eyed, baby-faced teen will walk across the stage as valedictorian of her class at the Contemporary Learning Center. The alternative school, in the Houston Independent School District, serves students who are two or three years behind grade level.
For Nickerson, academic struggles began in elementary school. She failed third grade and then fourth before transferring to HISD's Foster Elementary, where she met Sylvia Smith. "She was like the meanest teacher ever," Nickerson says. "But she let me know, 'You're gonna survive.' "
Nickerson hopes her youngest sister will get the mean teacher someday.
"Ms. Smith let 'em know like it is: 'This is who you are, but this is who you can become.' That's what she always used to tell me," Nickerson says.
Today, Smith uses Nickerson as an example for her young students. "This baby had it hard," she says, "and if this baby can succeed, you can do the same. It doesn't matter where you've come from."
In sixth grade, Nickerson landed on the honor roll. In seventh grade, too.
"Then I'm like, 'Man, this is boring,' " Nickerson recalls. "No one praised you. No one said 'Good job' when you brought home report cards."
The summer after seventh grade, Nickerson got pregnant. She had slept with her boyfriend just once, she says.
"I thought that was just the end. All the women in my family, they usually have children around the ages 13, 14, 15.
"No disrespect, but I don't want to depend on the welfare system. I don't want to depend on baby daddy — is he or is he not going to send me child support? — I don't want to live in the projects, thinking it's all good. This is not what I want."
A friend's mom helped Nickerson enroll in HISD's school for pregnant moms. The next year, as a freshman, Nickerson went to the Contemporary Learning Center, where semesters last nine weeks, instead of the traditional 18. The classes cut out the fluff, and determined students can graduate in about 2 1/2 years.
With a baby and a heavy class load, Nickerson struggled to carve time out for homework. Some days, she would work through lunch. Other days, she woke up at 3 a.m., two hours before she had to get her daughter, Pahris, up for day care.
Beverly Campbell, the high school guidance counselor, says she's seen many teen moms make excuses to skip school.
"With Myrtle, it was different," Campbell says. "She always tried to schedule appointments for her baby after school. She was always telling me about the baby's diet. If we had a school T-shirt, she says, 'I can't buy that because I have to buy vitamins.' "
Pahris graduated from the 3-year-old class at her day care this week. Mom will follow this weekend. She'll put a gown over her black dress, and, with a grade point average of 3.6, walk across stage as valedictorian.
"That sounds good, doesn't it?" Nickerson asks. "Oh man, it was a fight though. It was one heck of a fight."
In the fall, Nickerson will enter Texas Southern University. These days, she dreams of being a pharmacist.