This month, we are celebrating three seniors who have moved mountains to graduate from high school. Here is our first.
Family: Uncle and aunt, Eric and Bethany Yanez; many cousins, including Isabella and Isaiah Yanez. Her mother, Kathryn Chavez, died in a car wreck in Portland in October 2020.
Hometown: The Dalles.
Recent accomplishment: Graduating from Corvallis High School; also, winning the school’s Resiliency Award this year.
Hobbies: Reading fantasy novels and watching movies; the Harry Potter series is a favorite. She’s now working her way through “The Lord of the Rings” novels. Her favorite book ever is “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” by Benjamin Alire Saenz.
Fun fact: She’s listened to two different audiobook versions of the “Harry Potter” novels (separate versions were released in the United States and the United Kingdom). She says you’re missing out if you don’t listen to the version released in the United Kingdom, featuring British actor Stephen Fry handling the narration duties. Jim Dale – the narrator of the U.S. version – just doesn’t measure up, she says.
By MIKE McINALLY
Mari Chavez loves fantasy novels and movies, so she knows that heroes have origin stories – the series of events that starts protagonists on the path to heroism.
Sometimes, though, these origin stories don’t occur in fantasy worlds. Sometimes they take place in real life.
So, as Chavez prepares to graduate this week from Corvallis High School, consider what she calls, with a touch of wry humor, “My Superhero Super-Tragic Origin Story.”
And it’s all true. Maybe even the superhero part.
‘My only goal this year’
Chavez grew up in The Dalles, with a single mother, Kathryn Chavez. When Mari Chavez was in middle school, “I started struggling a lot, just not fitting in. That’s when we decided to move to Portland, because of better school options, and that was really good.”
Both Kathryn and Mari liked Portland. Kathryn Chavez worked her way up from a receptionist at a Portland Boys and Girls Club location to the manager of the site, the Wattles Club in southeast Portland. And Mari Chavez made a lot of new friends – but wasn’t doing particularly well in school.
“I slacked off a lot, didn’t go to class,” she said. “I had a less than 60 percent attendance pretty much all my high school career and middle school. It was not good. I was just dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression.”
Then came Oct. 10, 2020.
Kathryn Chavez was enjoying a night out in Portland with her best friend. Shortly after 2 on that Saturday morning, the friend was on the way to dropping Chavez off at home when her SUV ran out of gas on Interstate 5; the vehicle inched over to the right shoulder. They summoned a friend, who parked on the other side of the southbound lanes. As the women were crossing the interstate to get to the other vehicle, they were struck and killed by a vehicle driven by a man who was arrested on two counts of criminal negligent homicide and driving under the influence of intoxicants. Kathryn Chavez was 37.
In the space of one moment, Mari Chavez’s life changed.
“I went from living in a little apartment with just my mom, it was always just me and mom, no siblings or anything, and then moving in with my aunt and uncle,” Eric and Bethany Yanez of Adair Village and their two children, Isabella and Isaiah. (Chavez’s dad had been deported to Mexico more than a decade ago, so living with him wasn’t an option.)
“When everything happened, I took a month off of school in October,” Chavez said. “I just didn’t go to school at all in October because I had to pack up our apartment, move and deal with everything, the funeral.”
No one could have blamed Chavez if she had decided not to return to school for at least another year – and, in fact, that was her first impulse.
“When November came, and I was like, ‘OK, it’s probably time I should probably go to school,’ my first instinct was kind of like, ‘Whatever; I’m never going to school again; my mom died.’”
But, with support from her aunt, uncle and cousins, she had another thought.
“I was kind of like, ‘OK, there’s a lot of things happening in my life right now that I can’t control and one thing that I know I can control is my school and my education.’ So I was like, ‘All right, my only goal this year, the only expectation that I’m going to have for myself this year, is to graduate.’ So I just put everything into that.”
So in November, a month after the wreck that killed her mother, Chavez started taking virtual classes at Corvallis High School.
Thanks to her spotty school performance in Portland, though, she had plenty of ground to make up.
“I was missing so many credits,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to graduate at all.”
But she got a huge amount of support from her family, starting with her aunt and uncle at her new Adair Village home, complete with a dog (Bucky – “he’s so sweet”) and three horses, which Chavez declines to ride (“I’m not outdoorsy at all”).
“My aunt and uncle, they really supported me through everything, and they’ve really been here for me,” Chavez said. “I was just like, ‘Oh, this is what my mom would want, she’d want me to graduate, so this is what I’m going to do.”
‘I need to do this’
She also found supporters at the school, starting with her counselor, Josh Miller.
“He checks up on me a lot,” Chavez said. “If he notices that my grades are dropping a little bit, he always checks in on me and asks how he can help.“
For his part, Miller discounts his contribution. “Mari faced a fork in the road after her mom died,” he said. “She could have just let high school go and none of us would really blame her. … She chose to fight, and her aunt and uncle were right there to support her. That whole family bonded together through their grief and worked together to get to this point. I did nothing but fan the flames with encouragement.”
The school’s counseling center chose Chavez as the winner of this year’s resiliency award, given to a student who has overcome obstacles to graduation. Chavez was delighted – “I’ve never won anything before” – and was relieved that winning the award did not require her to give a speech.
Kathryn Chavez was an extrovert – “she had a really big personality,” Mari said – but her daughter is more reserved. “When I’m really close to people, or when I’m one-on-one, I can talk a lot. But when I’m in a group setting, I have such bad anxiety.”
In that way, it was a stroke of fortune that when Chavez started at Corvallis High School in November, classes were still being taught virtually due to the pandemic; for Chavez, it was a more comfortable fit than starting classes in person at a school where she didn’t know anyone. “It was really good doing online, especially when I was going through the transition, being able to be at home, especially like those first few months,” she said, “because I was like, ‘OK, I’m doing school, but also I can be in my own space, take a lot of breaks.’”
The return to in-person learning in May presented a different sort of challenge.
In fact, school officials gave Chavez the option to continue with classes online so she didn’t have to deal with throngs of people she didn’t know. But she opted to attend school in person. “I was like, ‘No, I need to do this, just to prove to myself that I can.’”
“I was like, ‘OK, I eventually want to go to college, and I’m going to want to get a job, and I’m going to have to be around people, so this is a good opportunity for me to go and practice having social skills because I just lost all of them.’”
It helped to have advocates in the school – in particular, art teachers Christa and Brandon Schmeder. “The two of them have just been absolutely amazing. … They’ve just been so great, helping me, letting me come into their classroom and just hang out and work on stuff, always being there just to listen to what’s going on, and letting me vent.”
For Christa Schmeder, who taught ceramics virtually for most of this year (it’s “just about as fulfilling as it sounds,” she said), having Chavez join her class “was such a breath of fresh air.”
“When she originally transferred to CHS, I didn’t know her story,” Schmeder said. “I appreciated her humor, art skills, and willingness to engage in the online classroom to make it feel more like pre-COVID school.”
Chavez volunteers in the Life Skills room during art time, Schmeder said, “and has been able to connect with kids who have been resistant to most everyone else.” Most days, Chavez eats lunch with the Schmeders, “and teaches us how not to be a boomer,” Christa Schmeder said.
In addition to the Schmeders, an uncle, Justin Volker, works at the school in a student behavior support position.
“They’re all amazing people and have been there for me a lot,” Chavez said. “I definitely couldn’t be where I am now without them. … I had my mom in Portland, and I had a couple of my friends. But then when I moved here, it was like, ‘Whoa, I’m like an orphan now, I’m alone.’ But I’m not alone. I have all these people who are here for me now.”
‘No one’s going to save you’
All the support helped. But, finally, the decision to push ahead with school was hers alone – and it came with doubts.
“It was just thinking like, ‘I’m not going to do this, I’m not smart enough, I’ve never really been pushed, I’m not disciplined, I can’t do this,’ whatever – I can give up and people aren’t really going to be mad at me. But then also, I was like, ‘I don’t have that option. You’re alone now, dude. You’re an adult now. No one’s going to save you.’”
Chavez plans to attend Linn-Benton Community College in the fall, but she’s not sure yet what she’ll study – maybe something in human services or child and family studies. “I’ve always enjoyed just helping people and whenever I’ve taken the aptitude tests at school, they tell me that I should work with kids, which I guess makes sense, because my mom was always really great with kids,” she said.
She’s not planning to attend Saturday’s graduation ceremonies for Corvallis High School – after all, she hardly knows anybody there and spent less than a month on the campus. Besides, her mind might be elsewhere this weekend: On Friday, family members are planning to take a trip to Lincoln City to scatter Kathryn Chavez’s ashes in the ocean. She wanted to be resurrected as a mermaid.
That’s one type of origin story. Her daughter is creating an origin story of her own.