More than once, teachers told Timothy Martinez that he wasn’t going to graduate from high school on time. That all changed when he moved to Los Altos during his sophomore year and enrolled at Alta Vista High School.
Despite what he had once been told, Martinez successfully graduated in four years and was the student commencement speaker at last week’s graduation ceremony.
“It wasn’t until I came to this school that I realized that I did matter and that people care about me enough to help me get out of the hole I had dug for myself,” he told the assembled crowd at the June 5 ceremony.
Throughout middle school and high school, the high cost of living forced Martinez and his family to move frequently, often staying with relatives. Sometimes, he would move within just a few months of getting to a new place.
His father also had serious health problems, including diabetes and heart problems. He was often in the hospital and at one point had a heart attack.
“It was really hard to focus on school when I was in a new house every few months or so,” Martinez said in an interview before the graduation ceremony. “And then having to worry about (my father) and try to take care of my family at the same time.”
On top of that, Martinez suffers from severe asthma, as well as anxiety and depression. His asthma meant he was frequently in and out of the emergency room and hospital.
At the time, he was attending Silver Creek High School in San Jose. According to Martinez, class sizes were large and his teachers were often unwilling to let him make up the schoolwork he missed.
“They just kind of thought I was a lost cause and that I couldn’t really do much,” Martinez said. “I’ve been told by multiple teachers and staff that I wasn’t going to finish.”
Ultimately, he and his parents moved to stay with his mother’s aunt, who lived in Los Altos. Because he was behind in credits, he was placed at Alta Vista.
“When I was told I needed to go to a continuation school, I thought to myself that this was it – I had finally failed and was right where the teachers said I was going to be. However, Alta Vista was different from the rumors,” Martinez said in his graduation speech. “As I stepped on Alta Vista’s campus, it was quiet and calm. Not at all what I was expecting. The teachers surprised me as well. Whenever I fell, they were always there to pick me back up.”
When he first arrived, academic adviser and social studies teacher Marciano Gutierrez said Martinez was shy and nervous, rarely speaking up in class – he was “someone who had quite a few gifts but was too afraid to use them.”
However, as he began to acclimate to the campus, things changed. The small class sizes, normally fewer than 20 students, meant Martinez was able to form individual bonds with his teachers.
“Being here has really helped calm my nerves, to know I have people who support me,” Martinez said.
The small student body, only approximately 90 students, also meant everyone knew each other.
It didn’t take long for Martinez’s parents to see the difference the new school was making for their son.
“Once he stepped on the campus, everything changed for him,” his father said. “They welcomed him with open arms.”
Part of what allowed for his success was that Alta Vista celebrated the growth he was making rather than using the precise definitions of proficiency that conventional high schools operate on, Gutierrez said.
“To see him stand on stage at a graduation in front of his family, friends and perfect strangers was a huge deal, and I think it spoke to the growth that he’s undergone,” Gutierrez said.
Now that he’s graduated, Martinez plans to attend San Jose City College and study biology, with the intention of transferring to a four-year university, ideally UCLA, to pursue a career in psychiatry.
Martinez said he wants to become a psychiatrist to help other people who underwent similar struggles.
“Growing up with a lot of anxiety and depression played a big negative (role) in how I performed as a student and as a person,” Martinez said. “I want … to share my experiences and help people overcome theirs.”
Regardless of what the future holds, Gutierrez said Martinez’s intellect, curiosity and maturity will serve him well in college.
Said Gutierrez, “If our mission is to help kids transform into their best possible selves, Tim is the example of that.”