The little girl from the poverty-ridden streets of Mexicali, Baja California didn’t know a word of English when she entered 3rd grade here in 2006 at age 9.
“She has come from the most humble of circumstances and catapulted herself to the highest point of our country’s educational system” says San Fernando High School Honors and AP Literature teacher Natalie Armstrong.
Now, she’s 18 and headed for Harvard in the fall.
Yeah, that Harvard.
“I’ve never had a student who has come so far so successfully in such a short period of time, and this is just the beginning.”
How Noemi Valdez made that climb is a story of heartache, devotion and the power of the American Dream which, contrary to popular opinion, is still a huge motivating force around the world in the minds of children from humble circumstances.
When she arrived in this country with her mother, who works the night shift at Pacifica Hospital in Sun Valley as a housekeeper, and her baby sister who is now 13, Noemi was sick much of the time.
Her father, who worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles, had finally saved up enough money to send for his family to join him. He would take his daughter to the hospital often, but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her because she wasn’t sick. She was terrified.
“Every morning around 7 a.m. I’d begin vomiting and violently shaking,” Noemi says. “I was terrified of having to walk into my third grade classroom because I did not speak English”.
“In Mexico, I was always one of the students with the best grades, but coming to the United States, everything changed for me. Those red-circled tens I had been receiving turned into ones and twos.”
In her letters to the Harvard selection committee she describes those early days.
“I had been in school for about two weeks and my teacher asked me to close the door. After several frustrated attempts at trying to make me understand what she was saying, she finally said to me in Spanish, ‘You have been here for two weeks, and you can’t even understand one simple sentence. I want you to close the door!’
“When she spoke to me in Spanish, I immediately understood, but I could see the disgust in her face. I had grown up being one of the best students, never yelled at, to this instant where I felt I was being put down in a country that was not mine, in a language I did not speak, and in a school I did not belong in.”
She was transferred out of that class and placed in a smaller one with a teacher who understood her frustration.
“Everything changed when I walked into Ms. Goldstein’s room and saw it was plastered with alphabet letters and below them the pronunciations. The English alphabet. I stood in awe!
“I remember the gradual progression I made that year, and Ms. Goldstein’s discussions with my parents about how I would master the English language if I kept up that pace.”
She not only kept it up, she blew by it. In three years, the little girl who couldn’t speak a word of English was entering Pacoima Middle School in Honors English courses.
But the price of success has been emotionally draining. Her parent’s divorce in 2009 drew her closer than ever to her mother and sister, her biggest supporters and the ones who are taking her leaving home the hardest.
“These days I often hear sobbing in my sister’s room. She has cried almost every night since she began to comprehend that my leaving is inevitable. It’s hard not to think I am abandoning her.”
Her mother is proud of her success, but fearful to let her daughter go. Every morning on the 10 minute drive to school they would talk about what needed to be done that day before they saw each other the next morning.
Ten minutes was all they had because by the time Noemi got home from school her mother was already at work, and wouldn’t return until after 11 p.m. when her daughters were sleeping.
“Many nights I’d feel my mother’s callous hands pull the books from under my head when I’d fall asleep doing homework,” Noemi says. “I give my mother a million thanks for bringing me to this country.”
She would love for her mother and sister to visit Harvard to put their minds at ease, but she knows a trip is beyond their reach.
“One plane ticket there and back is one month’s salary for my mother,” she says. “We cannot afford that.”
When the time came to accept Harvard’s offer of a full scholarship, and start on her career path to becoming an archeologist and applied mathematics college professor one day, Noemi called her mother and sister to the computer to sit with her.
They each put a finger on the Send button and together they clicked the box indicating “I accept the offer of admission to Harvard.”
Then, they hugged and had a good cry.
They had come to this country from humble circumstances nine years earlier looking for the American Dream, and they found it.
by Dennis McCarthy