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High Schoolers on What Success Means to Them

In their own words, four students define success and the tools they need to achieve it. Note to grown-ups: It's not about the money.

June 9, 2020

Sanai Metoyer

Carlos Jimenez

Harrison Yazzie

Gabrielle Taylor

In districts across the country, educators are working tirelessly to figure out how students can be successful in a world shifting beneath their feet. So we asked students: What does success mean to you?

And how can teachers help you, right now, to get there? Meet Sanai, Carlos, Harrison, and Gabby. Four teenagers from four different parts of the country with a wealth of wisdom and some pretty bright dreams.

By Sanai Metoyer 

As told to Faviola Leyva

Sanai Metoyer, 16, is a junior at Agua Fria High School in Avondale, Arizona, outside of Phoenix. Before school closed for the year, she played on her school’s golf team, the mighty Owls, and participated in DECA, a program to prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs—or in Sanai’s case, restauranteurs. When school resumes, Sanai will be the student body secretary. “There’s driven, and I’m over-driven,” she says. “When I want to do something, I will continue to push and push.” She spoke with One Day on a spring Friday during quarantine.

A selfie of a high school student, Sanai Metoyer

Success can be measured in different ways, depending on the person. Some say money. Others say happiness. But to me, success means using my voice to help others.

My family does a good job helping the community. They inspire me. My dad was in the military, serving the country. My mom is a therapist and clinical director and helps people get over addiction. And then my grandma, Gammy, does hair and has a lot of connections. So if someone needs a job, she'll ask one of her clients to see if they're hiring or know of anyone hiring.

They instilled a value of gratitude, too. My stepdad always shares his life story with us. He is blind, and when he was a teenager, he was homeless. He tells us to be grateful that we have family, friends, a home, food on the table, opportunities. He shows us that your backstory doesn’t matter. You can still be successful.

I grew up cooking with my grandmas, Gammy and Grandma Omega. Seasonings, chicken, sauces, spaghetti, a little of everything. It wasn’t a chore, I wanted to do it. We would watch the food as it cooked, and they’d teach me how to clean up afterwards. We laughed a lot and there was a homey feel in their kitchens.

My dream is to open my own restaurant. Not a fancy restaurant, but a place where people can get together, feel at home, like a community center. I want to open it in the center of a neighborhood, not in the middle of the city where people don’t pay attention. People will act at home there, like a family. They won’t have to act like someone else, professional or scholarly.

My restaurant will offer four spaces. The first room will offer food, computers, and printers. There will be donations for people who are homeless or need resources. The second room will be for kids, with games like Monopoly and Twister, and toys to play with like blocks and Legos. The third room will be the main restaurant area for serving and eating. And the fourth room will be another kitchen for cooking lessons. A 5-year-old could learn to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Teenagers could make meatloaf and spaghetti. Adults could learn more sophisticated meals or desserts like crème brûlée.

My age is an ongoing obstacle. I need more opportunities. I’ve tried for some but I was too young for them. People always tell me to slow down. This year, I took three AP and honors classes, plus golf and DECA and work. My parents and some friends didn’t think I’d be able to keep up, but my grades were actually better this year. I showed them I could handle it.

I’ve always been the youngest of the people I hang around. In school, people forget that I’m just a junior. Or that in student council, I’m not an officer yet. Being younger doesn’t mean I’m not smarter.

Right now, teachers need to keep pushing us. I know they’re trying to go easy on us because of what we’re all going through, staying home. But they need to keep challenging us with schoolwork. We need motivation, even an email reminding me to do my work. And we need more college resources. I only see my counselor twice a year unless I make a request. It would be great right now to develop a post-high school plan with my counselor so I could be held accountable. It would remind me where I want to go, what I want to do. I could plan for what courses I need to take in college to build my business plan, what summer cooking classes I could take.

I’m a planner. Year to year, I’m building success. Like this year, I won two medals at DECA competitions. I won the election for student council secretary. I had a B in history sophomore year, and an A this year. Little successes build up to big successes.

By Carlos Jimenez

As told to Derek Davidson (Baltimore ’07)

Carlos Jimenez, 18, is a senior in the founding class at Venture High School in Minneapolis. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. He’s healthy today but under strict mom-orders to stay home during quarantine. Before COVID-19, he worked at a local movie theater. Now, he’s passing time watching Tiger King and other shows during nightly video chats with his friends and girlfriend, and trying to keep up with schoolwork. In the fall, Jimenez plans to attend Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He spoke with his English teacher, Derek Davidson (Baltimore ’07), about what he needs to get from here to his vision of success.

Carlos Jimenez smiling

Ultimately, I think success is happiness. I really want to have a family. Maybe a house—a nice house in the suburbs. It's just something about the suburbs and how calm they are. Nothing happens there. Having a car is going to make me happy. I've always wanted a nice fast car. Being a parent is going to make me happy.

Right now there are 10 people living with me in my two-bedroom house in South Minneapolis. My sister lives in our living room with her husband and my niece. There’s a dryer in our living room. Our old dryer broke, so my dad bought a broken one and fixed it up. He wired two 120-volt connectors together to make 240 volts to connect it. He used what he knew to be successful. But my dream is to not have to worry about having the dryer stop working on me.

Before I had to stay home because of coronavirus, I didn’t realize I needed school, somewhere quiet where I can focus and study. I never used to go to libraries. But now I wish they were open because I've been doing schoolwork from my car. It’s been the only quiet place to go to avoid interruptions. I don't have a table at home where I can clearly set out my stuff and focus, which is something I took for granted.

If I could say something to teachers and principals, I’d tell them that more than anything, we need motivation. And I’d say not to think so much about what work they give students, but about how students are going to do that work. Because for most people, school is their safe place where they can focus and learn.

My long-term goal is to be a Minneapolis police officer, and one day, the chief of police. We need more good cops. We need more diversity in the police force. And we just need more people who know what it's like to be in lower-income places—you know, who live with 10 people in their house.

As a cop, I want to be like my teachers. I have teachers who, years after they taught someone, keep checking in. That’s what I want to do. When I interact with someone as a cop, I don’t want it to end there. I want to see them succeed. You can arrest someone 50 times, but if you never find out who they are and what they’re going through, it will never end.

I applied to a community service officer program where they pay for two years of college and ease you into the police department. But I got rejected. Now, I’ve just got to look for the best in it. Like if I had been accepted into that program, I was only going to do two years of college. Now I can do four years and be more successful. I’m seeing it as an opportunity.

I’m still going to be a cop. I was part of the Minneapolis Police Explorers program the past few years. I’ve learned about handcuffing and crime scene investigations. I’ve gone to city and state competitions and I was recognized as the best for handling domestic crises. And now I know officers on the force who will vouch for me when it’s time to apply.

Life isn't always going to be easy. You need to find ways to adapt because you can’t always get what you want. I guess I learned that when I got cancer because sure, I wish I didn't get cancer. But I learned so much from it. Don’t get me wrong, it was awful. I was stuck in the hospital, throwing up from chemotherapy. I used to get the worst headaches. They hurt so bad I would cry. But I also got opportunities, and I got to grow more than I would have if I hadn’t gone through that. So there's always going to be a benefit. There’s always one. You've just got to find it.

By Harrison Yazzie

As told to Leah Fabel (Chi-NWI ’01)

Harrison Yazzie, 17, is a member of the Navajo Nation and a senior at Gallup High School, in Gallup, New Mexico. Residents of the region have experienced extremely high rates of COVID-19 infection and fatalities, forcing them into one of the strictest lockdowns in the U.S. Harrison spent the spring at home, about 30 miles outside of Gallup, surrounded by mountains, desert brush, a sea of sky, and a scattering of neighbors, most of whom are family. He plans to attend Arizona State University, where he hopes to prepare for a career in public service and become accustomed to city life. He took a break from remodeling the kitchen with his dad to speak to One Day from his home.

Harrison Yazzie smiles in front of a red wall

Success should be focused on happiness, spirituality, who you are. It’s the freedom to do things of your own will. To try new things and learn from your mistakes. To me, that's success—realizing who you are and achieving your identity with dignity.

In my Navajo culture, there's a prayer we say called “Walking in Beauty.” It says you’re always going to walk in beauty, no matter what. Even in dark times, you can be yourself, your beautiful self. And that inspires me, knowing that I will always have my identity with me, my beliefs, my faith.

My big sister—we’re about four years apart—she followed her heart and went to technical school to become an automotive technician. She got two degrees, one in automotive and one in welding. Some people told her that working on cars is more of a man's job, but she didn't listen to them. She did it anyway.

I’m planning to go to Arizona State in the fall and major in political science. I’ve always been into politics. My dream is to become a U.S. senator and represent Indigenous people. I’d like to see my people in the Navajo Nation have running water and electricity. Right now, our people are impacted badly by COVID-19 because many of them don’t have running water, so they can’t wash their hands. Some people have to travel 20 miles just to get running water. And the Indian Health Services and hospitals are far from a lot of people, making it hard for them to get the medical care that they need.

I’d also like to clean up the open uranium mines here that are poisoning the water with radiation. And to raise people’s voices who’ve been hurt by the justice system. That’s what democracy is, hearing the people’s voices. Gallup is small, but a lot happens there. Listening to people or going on social media, there’s a lot of talk of police brutality nearby, or other cruelty. It’s happened to my own family. That’s what really sparks me inside, to see that impact on my bloodline.

I don't want my people, who I will represent, to go through the struggles I’ve gone through. I want them to go forward, to achieve bigger things. That's how the political system should work.

In ninth grade, I was in an English class for people with IEPs and accommodations, because I have dyslexia. But we didn’t really do anything in that class. So at the end of ninth grade, I told my teachers that I needed to be put in a regular English class, and they did it. At the start of 10th grade, I was so nervous. But my teacher, Ms. Henry, showed me how much I was improving my writing skills, and reading, and my vocabulary. She told me I was actually helping to show the way for other students, showing them that no matter what someone tells you, you can go higher.

As students right now, I think we need to know from adults that life is not always going to be a smooth path and there won’t always be a happy ending. We hear about bills and taxes, but I want to hear that success isn’t just about our bank account or our nine-to-five job. I want to hear about real life, the happy times and sad times, the balance.

We need motivation in this time, too. We need an uprising of people coming together as one. When we lose that feeling of community, we give up easily.

This is what I’ve learned from my own Indigenous people, the Diné. No matter what you are going through, remember that you’ll always have a family, k'é. Your mother is the earth, Nihimá Nahasdzáán, and your father is the sky, Yádiłhił. Don’t say you don’t have parents because you have mother earth and father sky. You’ve just got to learn how to use their teachings.

By Gabrielle Taylor

As told to Paula Ann Solis

Gabrielle Taylor, 18, is a senior at Edgecombe Early College High School in Tarboro, North Carolina. Her friends call her Gabby. A self-proclaimed nerd, she will be a “super senior” next year and graduate with an associate degree. When she's not studying, she's often working at the local Arby’s, where she’s been promoted to a shift manger. She spoke with One Day from a box store parking lot, eating takeout before a grocery run, after a long day of work.

Gabrielle Taylor smiles

Growing up, my mom would say to me and my cousins that the only way to be successful in life is to be a doctor or a lawyer. So at 6 or7 years old, I said I’d be a lawyer. Then in high school, I joined the Teen Court program and I realized I don’t see myself happy anywhere doing that kind of work. So that can’t be success, you know? You have to do what makes you happy.

I faced a lot of trauma growing up. In sixth grade, I was diagnosed with depression. I felt lost for so long, without a purpose. And as I felt my way back from that deep, dark place, I came to realize I was a light to so many people. So I try each day to make life better for everyone around me. I feel like that’s success. Financial stability is big, too. I want to be able to purchase my own home, have my own car in my name, help my younger siblings through college. But I don’t have to be a billionaire.

I started writing poetry in middle school. In English, we read a poem called “We Wear the Mask” [by Paul Laurence Dunbar] and I felt every word of it. It was like I was putting on a mask every day to mask the person I was. Ever since I understood that poem, I’ve been writing my own stuff. Some of my poems are dark and they come from bad places, but it’s therapeutic for me. Writing helps me a lot.

When I turned 18, my godmother connected me with Resources for Resilience, a program that teaches people how to deal with adversities and childhood trauma. We talk about the deep stuff. We talk about how stress and trauma can control your life if you let them. We talk about ways to diminish them. My best friend, Jeneise, and I—they call us the dynamic duo—we became youth trainers for Resources for Resilience and we held the first-ever youth workshop, with middle schoolers and high schoolers.

My godmother started a nonprofit called Michael’s Angels Girls Club. It’s a mentorship program. Tarboro gets a bad rap, but she created the program to show girls from Tarboro that you can be successful, you can do amazing things. Through that, I have a lot of girls who look up to me and come to me for advice. Sometimes I think, “Gabby, you are a hot mess.” But these girls and other people, they’re rooting for me. So I must be doing something right, you know?

In March, I won the Distinguished Young Women of Edgecombe County scholarship. It’s a little bit like a pageant—there’s a program and you’re judged in five different areas, like a personal interview and a talent. For talent, I performed one of my poems, titled “Fear.” In the coming years, I plan to become a psychologist and a writer—a known writer, a New York Times bestseller. Before the end of this year, my goal is to release my first book of poetry. I’ve been working on it a lot more lately since coronavirus put everything else on pause. I know I’m not at my full potential yet because I’m young. But one day I want to make a living off of my writing, my experiences. I want people to be able to relate to me.

Being around positive people will set me in the direction of success. Continuing to be in a great mental space—that’s going to help me. Just love, happiness, and peace around me, surrounding me, that’ll get me where I need to go.


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