I Am a High School Drop-Out by Karen Leslie Hernandez

karen hernandezIn 1985, four months before I was supposed to graduate from high school, I awoke one morning, made a hasty decision to escape my harsh reality, and by the end of the day, I was a high school drop-out.

Even now, with a BA from Wellesley College and two theological master’s degrees, I have a difficult time admitting I dropped out of high school. It’s not necessarily because I am embarrassed, but more, it is because it reminds me of that very painful time in my life.

My journey is, I am aware, different, to say the least. However, as I rummage through my past, I am always reminded that I didn’t get here alone. No, indeed, there were many beautiful souls that helped me get to where I am today.

In all the work and conversations I have had with women around the world – women in the Slums of Mumbai, domestic violence survivors, rape victims, women that have experienced war and trauma, incest survivors – I am always reminded of one thing – women are all born with strength, beauty, hope, and a future. Somewhere along the way, for many of us, things change, and the sad reality is that things change because of where we are born, or our educational opportunities, or our social class, or our race, or our religion, or our place in the family, or mental illness, or abuse, and so on. I think a lot of times things change for women, simply because we are women.

For me, things changed for several reasons. I didn’t drop out of school because of drugs, or because I got pregnant, or because I partied too much, or because I wasn’t smart enough to make it through school. I dropped out because, as I shared here on FAR in Part 1 & Part 2 of How Do You Honor Your Parents, When They Do Not Always Honor You? – I grew up in an abusive and neglectful home and somewhere along the way I got terribly lost.

For much of my childhood I felt horribly alone. I now have what is known as, “Big T Trauma,” which is caused by not only the abuse, but, from the neglect I underwent after my mother left when I was 13 years old.

As a young woman, when I dropped out of high school, not a single person said, “What are you going to do now?” But instead, I drifted in to a black hole of no future, and was asked, “What did you do to mess up your life?” And, the question I asked myself every day when I woke up, How did I get here? Along with thinking, This isn’t what I had planned for my life.

When I look back now, I wonder – did no one care because I was a girl? A Mexican-American? Not from an affluent family? I wonder had I been a male, if things would have been different. The sheer isolation I felt after I dropped out was stunning. I felt even more alienated from society than I had before I dropped out. I was angry too. So angry. Angry at myself, my parents, the world. I had no idea where to turn, but, wasn’t even sure I wanted to or had the choice to turn.

And then, some light. A year after I dropped out, enter Lesli, my childhood friend. While I didn’t realize that anyone was watching, Lesli saw me swimming in the abyss, trying to get to the shore, frantically waving her hands from the dry sand. One day she simply said, “Hey, I am going to register at Chabot Junior College – join me.” At first, I resisted. I remember discussing with her that I would have to admit to the college that I dropped out of high school and it wasn’t a conversation I desired to have, with anyone.

Then there was the stigma …  I felt like a huge failure, worried what people would think of me, had very low self esteem, and literally felt “stupid.” In my 18 year old mind I was a failure. I had dropped out of school because I just couldn’t make it. It was too difficult. Too competitive. Too overwhelming. I wasn’t enough.

Lesli persisted. I honestly can’t remember what she said, but, it was enough to make me walk in and register for classes with her. I have never thanked her for that moment – that moment when she believed in me more than I could ever believe in myself, especially during that very painful time of my life. That moment where someone loved me enough to say without saying out loud, You are worthy. Let me walk with you.

Life happened then – Marriage, a child, moving around the world as an Air Force Spouse, a calling, and back to school, where a woman who worked in the counseling office at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts simply stated one day, “There’s this cool program at Wellesley College for women who are older like yourself. It’s called the Davis Scholar Program. You should apply when you are ready to transfer.” I remember thinking, Wellesley College? High school drop-outs don’t go to Wellesley College.

Yet, in 2005, twenty years after I dropped out of high school, I walked across Wellesley’s stage to receive my BA. Followed by two master’s degrees within six years, it wasn’t just me, who got me there – Professors, advisers, friends, family, yoga instructors, therapists, and even strangers, all walked with me.

This high school drop-out is beloved. But not just by God.

What I have learned about being beloved by God, is that it is all the souls whom have been a part of my life’s journey thus far, that are God’s hands reaching down to guide me and remind me that I am beloved. I am worthy. And, the most difficult love to learn – love of myself. More importantly, by being beloved, I have learned what I am not. I am not a stigma. I am not a failure. I am not less than.

I am enough. And yes, I am a high school drop-out.

As I move through this world, I often wonder how many women like me are out there. I have met many of them in my work, yet, I know there are many more who are silent, afraid to speak, afraid to take a step that could change everything for fear they won’t succeed. These women just need one person to believe in them, because that is literally all it takes – just one person.

The lesson in all of this is that people get lost. And we watch. We get frustrated. We give up. We resist helping because we think it isn’t our “problem.” But really, why isn’t it our problem? I think it is. I think letting people go down a path alone is like saying, “Forget you. I am more important.” Imagine a world that exists with not only love of self, but equal love of others. My success, depends on your success – a sort of Reciprocated Belovedness.

The next time you see a woman walk off the path, believe in her when she can’t believe in herself. Show her she’s strong. Look for and understand her circumstances. Don’t judge her. Don’t tell her she’s wrong. It’s not about your way. Or society’s way. Most importantly, offer to walk with her. The whole way, or, part of the way. Because that’s all she needs. It’s so simple. Just walk with her. Because then, someday, she too can say, In all ways, I am beloved.


Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. She loves to teach and last year designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, and she also does Domestic Violence Faith Advocacy work across the US.

Categories: abuse, Academics, Activism, Belief, Childhood, Domestic Violence, Faith, Family, fear, Feminism, God, Racism, Rape, Women's Power, Women's Rights, Women's Spirituality, Women's Suffering, Women's Voices

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12 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing your story and your convictions. I love the term reciprocated belovedness. I am a highschool dropout, too. Different circumstances, different story. But I also have people to thank for seeing in me what I could not see in myself. I am a counselor now and sometimes have the opportunity to do the same for another. Thanks for the inspiration.


    • Three stories:

      A young man is quarterback of the varsity football team at the renowned Gonzaga College High School in Washington DC. There is tension in his family and he leaves home for several months. Upon returning he does not re-enroll at Gonzaga (for reasons unclear to me) Instead he matriculates at Bethesda- Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. He applies and is accepted to the University of Dayton without having graduated at B-CC. After his freshman year he goes back to B-CC, shows that he has passed freshman English and is awarded a diploma. He subsequently earns a law degree.

      One young woman asks another to retrieve a package at the post office in Blacksburg, VA. The second young woman does so and within hours is arrested for possession of drugs. She is tried, convicted and serves time in Alderson federal prison. Her family is supportive during her incarceration. She later returns to college and earns a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech. Unfortunately she is unable to be certified to teach because of her conviction.

      A young man is a marginal high school student. When class rank is computed, he is next to last. He actually graduates dead last in his class at Woodson High School in Fairfax, VA because the guy who was supposed to be last didn’t graduate. Later, the young man attends the Northern Virginia Community College, earns an associate’s degree and transfers to a college in the Midwest where he picks up a bachelor’s degree. Then the kid for whom nobody had any expectations attends law school. Last I heard he was trying cases at the Fairfax County Courthouse which is a few miles down Main Street/Little River Turnpike (S.R. 236) from his high school alma mater.

      Your account is an example why we as a society should never write off anyone. I am impressed with your journey and now would like to share my own.

      In February 2008, I spoke at the funeral of my father Henry. Afterwards, my brother Jim (also a speaker) who had majored in math at the Naval Academy for the same wrong reasons I had majored in economics at Virginia Tech accosted me and demanded, “Why the hell aren’t you a writer?”

      I pondered his words for a long time. The following January I matriculated at George Mason University as an English major. My concentration is nonfiction writing. To graduate I need just three hours of a literature course before 1915. I am taking my time, but expect to finish in 2017.

      I am confident that many others within the Feminism and Religion community have similar accounts and hope that you would be open to hearing them.


      • So great for you, John! Thank you for sharing these stories. So many people who take different roads for so many reasons… best to you as you finish your degree!


    • Thank you, Elizabeth! You are in inspiration and proof that, healed people, heal people. Blessings…


  2. Yes, this is an important warning to older girls today, too, not to drop out of High School. In fact, we can rebel, AND be good to ourselves, by hanging in sometimes, instead of walking away.


    • But, if a young woman does want drop out, we need to try to understand why… and address that issue. This will empower her and enable her to hopefully stay in school.


  3. This is a lovely essay. I was raised in similar circumstances, and it was tremendously difficult to cast off both the damage of that time as well as societal pressure to act like it didn’t happen. I am beyond grateful for the women in my life who sustained me through that process.


    • My story is also similar and I’m sitting here remembering the wonderful people who loved me and helped me along the path to a more positive future. I just re-connected with my bff from grade school on FaceBook and guess what… she thanked me for helping her! Never knew. We were helping each other!
      Thank you Karen


    • Thank you! I am so happy to hear that you had people in your life to help you.


  4. I did finish high school (barely), but connect with your story in so many ways.
    Once, in a group of clergy (mostly men), we were asked to share our stories of how we were called to ordained ministry. I inwardly shuddered and managed to create a version of the story I felt safe in sharing in that setting. Later, when I told another woman pastor about this, she said that she had noticed that many of women pastors (especially second career like me) had call stories that were complex, deeply personal, and often filled with painful experiences. I felt better know this. I can tell the abbreviated story when I have to, knowing that there are people who know and understand the complexities that many of us live with.
    Thank you for sharing yourself.


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