This month, we are celebrating three seniors who have moved mountains to graduate from high school. This is our second student spotlight.
Family: Mother, Cheri Gilbertson; two siblings, Malika, 8 and Malachi, 5.
Recent accomplishment: Graduating from College Hill High School.
Hobbies: Basketball, football, soccer, video games (he’s currently playing “Black Desert”).
Music: Like his mother, he’s a fan of classic 1980s rock and likes the band Slayer. He’ll also listen to rap and smooth jazz.
By MIKE McINALLY
Last year, Javon Harper decided to participate in the film festival at College Hill High School, where he attends. He was brainstorming with teachers and others about what subject to tackle, and hit upon a very personal topic: He decided to create a short tribute to a family friend who had died a couple of years before.
The friend, Harper said, “always was there for me, and she always just took care of me and I appreciate that.” She was an inspiration, and making the film was a way to honor her – and also, perhaps, to begin the process of repaying the favor.
Harper graduated last this week from College Hill. This summer, he’ll start work as an apprentice welder for a Tangent company with an eye toward eventually continuing his education. And, although he might not realize it, his story of how he got to this point after struggling in school, couch-surfing with his family for years, and a scrape with the juvenile justice system could serve as inspiration for someone else – such as, perhaps, a pair of younger siblings.
The struggles in school began early. Even in middle school, Harper wondered “why it was so difficult for me. … I barely even passed some of my classes and I only got Cs and Ds,” he said.
There were extenuating circumstances: For years, his family was essentially homeless, but they did have shelter since they were couch-surfing at the house of a family friend. Still, it wasn’t an ideal situation: “It was kind of hard because every time I wanted to have some friends (over), they were wondering if they could come over to my place but I didn’t really have a room. So it was really hard to make friends.”
Also, he had problems focusing while at school – but it would be years until a diagnosis helped him to understand why.
After barely getting past his freshman year at Corvallis High School, the bottom fell out.
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Harper said he was leaving school a half-hour early each day so he could babysit his younger siblings for his mother, who was working at a job that started at 3 p.m.
“It was helpful for my mom,” he said, “but it was hard for me because I was still kind of confused and I didn’t know what some assignments were. … I was lost, because I was just kind of tired and wasn’t really motivated to graduate or anything.”
A brush with the juvenile justice system over a sibling scuffle didn’t help matters.
Harper moved out, into a succession of apartments with friends.
And he flunked his sophomore year at Corvallis High School.
A transfer to College Hill offered a fresh start – and Harper, with help from teachers and staff at the school, vowed to make the most of it. But that took work – and a little bit of time.
“After I switched to this school, I kind of changed my mentality and tried to focus on work and trying to finish with school. …. But it took me until my junior year, and that’s when I decided, all right, let’s try to change my life and not try to worry about what happened when I was younger. … Mostly it was kind of buckle down and just get the work done and try to push my drama out of the schoolwork.”
He was able to move in with Carolyn Powers, a volunteer at College Hill, and that stabilized his living conditions.
And a stint with a vocational rehabilitation program allowed another piece of the puzzle to fall into place: During testing for the program, Harper was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The diagnosis made sense to Harper: “After I found that out, that also helped me a lot to realize why I’m always thinking so much or why I’m not completing my assignments and other things.”
He also started to learn skills to help with that: “Just clear my head and focus on the one thing that’s ahead of me and then the next thing is to do it, try to breathe slowly, try to understand what I’m trying to do. And if I need help, raise my hand, because the other teachers are here for a reason.”
A summer job last year with the Philomath manufacturer Shelter Works helped confirm Harper’s desire to work with his hands. “It was really physical and I really liked how physical it was. It was a really fun experience with that job.”
This summer, the apprenticeship at L&M Industrial Fabrication in Tangent awaits. Harper’s interest in welding dates back to his days in shop classes at Corvallis High. “I tried out welding before at CHS and I enjoyed it,” he said. “I’d just rather work with my hands than be on a computer.”
He also plans to go to college to study auto mechanics or prepare to be an electrician. “I just want to expand my knowledge and just know more and see what other types of jobs I can do.”
It’s a brighter future now than it looked a few years ago, and Harper is aware of that – and thankful. In some ways, working on the movie about his family friend – he still calls the friend his “Nana” – made him reflect on all the people who have offered him help, from College Hill teachers and staff members to family members and even his younger siblings – who he hopes can learn from his example.
“When I was putting together the movie, I was grateful” for what all those other people did “to help put me onto the right path and not try to be a deadbeat student.”
And that’s a debt he wants to pay forward: “If there’s a chance that I can be there for someone else, then I would.”