They did not always inspire confidence, these two. In fact, freshman year at Foster High School, they were ready to drop out. Mycal Ford was busy...

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They did not always inspire confidence, these two. In fact, freshman year at Foster High School, they were ready to drop out.

Mycal Ford was busy being his most social self, trying to ignore his childhood abuse. Lote Faleagafulu had gone quiet, worried about her sick father at home.

Still, like most troubled children, these two wanted more. Somewhere, on their own separate paths, they showed it. And that’s when the school closed in — teachers, students, after-school clubs — pushing them forward.

Four years later, Ford and Faleagafulu are graduating tonight, scholarships in hand.

Just don’t ask them to leave for good. This school is theirs. Ford, 18, wants to re-create his dance program at Foster next year. Faleagafulu, also 18, plans to keep working on the Multicultural Action Committee.

College classes or no college classes, they will find the time.

None of this surprises Cynthia Chesak, a longtime teacher at Foster. She’s seen the way students make this place their home. Small school, strong support system — sometimes the only one a student’s got.

“These kids are emotionally attached to this building,” she said. “They have a hard time cutting loose and moving on.”

At Tukwila’s only high school, nearly 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 120 different languages or dialects are spoken. WASL scores lag. But school spirit is strong.

Not every kid loves Foster. But the ones who do can’t get enough.

“School is kind of like my getaway,” Faleagafulu said. “I would stay here as long as I could if they didn’t kick me out.”

Shifting priorities

In Samoan culture, Faleagafulu said, the priorities are clear: family first, school second. When her father started to go blind from diabetes, the decision was easy. She chose family.

Her grades fell, and she considered quitting school.

But the family had moved to the mainland so she could get this education. Her mother worked double shifts so she could have it. A different decision had to be made. So sophomore year, she chose school. Volleyball, softball, the Pacific Islander club, the Multicultural Action Committee. She joined it all.

“I kind of want to prove there are some Pacific Islanders who really care about their education, and about their life,” said Faleagafulu, who is headed to Bellevue Community College.

Now she moves through the hallways, a tall figure, a smiling face, a peaceful way about her. She calls out, “I love you, sisters” in Somali. She asks, “How are you?” in Thai.

At Foster, cultural pride is cool.

Faleagafulu has no end of it. She wore traditional clothing to school sometimes, just to represent. She designed a 2-foot-tall tapestry of tattoos for her year-end project. And she pushed other Samoan students to stay in school.

The “quiet voice in their ear,” Chesak called her.

“She’s my personal version of Oprah,” said her younger sister, Maheleone Faalelea.

Faalelea was ready to drop out a few months ago. English was too difficult. The work at school was too hard.

But her sister would not listen. She made Faalelea practice “Emancipation Proclamation” until the words flowed well. She badgered her to work more, focus more, be more.

She gave the girl a mantra: If you’re giving up on this, you’re giving up on life.

Being himself

Freshman year, Ford’s goal was to be popular. Sophomore year, it was to get girls. Then all of a sudden, junior year, it got bigger: Be himself.

That was the year it turned around.

The switch was in the making for years. Teachers tagged him in elementary school for support. By high school, he had Chesak, who talked him through problems every morning before school. And Sue Pike, the French teacher who encouraged him to speak at the MLK Jr. assembly. And Holli Dexheimer, the math teacher who showed up at a performance when no one from home could make it.

“Extended family members — that’s what I would call them,” Ford said.

A gifted performer, Ford began to give his talent. He created a dance program for the middle-school students, with help from the Tukwila Community Schools Collaboration. He traveled to Washington, D.C., as the student representative for the nonprofit.

Laughing and loud about everything else, Ford always kept his past to himself. The abuse he took, by different people, in different ways, back when he was a boy. He thought it would make him look ugly. His friends convinced him it did not.

Last month, for his year-end project, Ford performed the story of his life in a mix of hip-hop and modern dance. He had already earned a full ride to Pacific Lutheran University. Maybe it would inspire students.

“I decided to take a risk and lay it out there on stage,” he said.

When freshman Shalia Johnson saw it, she cried. She had taken Ford’s dance class a year earlier. He always seemed so happy to her.

Think of all the kids passing through Foster’s hallways, she said recently. You just never know.

Before Ford took the stage that day, it occurred to him that people might laugh. But when he was done, his classmates stood in salute.

Then they began a long, loud round of applause.