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Homeless and alone, she struggles toward graduation

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Diamond Syas, 17
Diamond Syas, 17, at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington on Dec. 9, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Updated: 5:09 p.m. | Posted: 4:06 p.m.

When I first met Diamond Syas last fall at an alternative learning program in Bloomington, the 17-year-old was wearing ripped jeans and a pink T-shirt that said "Adorbs." 

Diamond told me she was practically a grown lady. Her parents were out of the picture, and she was living with her older sister — her guardian — and helping raise her sister's kids. 

"If I don't go to work, or if I don't make enough money, then we won't have a place to live — we, as in my sister, niece and nephew," Diamond explained. "They're like my kids. I can't afford for that to happen. I would rather be stressed, going through everything I'm going through, than have them go through that."

The "everything" she was going through was the challenge of finishing high school while meeting her other responsibilities. For many students of color, it's a struggle to get a diploma within four years. The path that leads to crossing that stage in June can be a precarious one.

The alternative learning program where we met is Beacon, Kennedy High School's initiative to help kids catch up on courses they need to graduate. Diamond, who's black, transferred to Kennedy this year with lots of missing credits.

Given the other stresses in her life, school was an escape, a refuge. "I actually like school," she said. "I actually do like school." 

But it wasn't the most pressing thing in her life. Her sister sometimes worked overnight at the gas station, so it was up to Diamond to get up in the middle of the night to soothe and feed her baby niece. 

It meant Diamond was exhausted the next morning. She got sick a lot. And there was no guarantee she'd be in class on any given day.

Back when I talked to her in November, she said one thing was a given: graduation. It was her ticket to somewhere.

"It makes me so happy to even talk about it, because I can just see the future, just there, instead of having to deal with now," she said.

This was her plan: She'd turn 18 just before graduation. She'd enroll in a community college and study computer networking. And she was going to bring in some real money, better than the jobs she had at the Mall of America. She'd get a place of her own. 

But when we met up at Kennedy several weeks later, after winter break, things had changed for Diamond. Drastically.

What had happened?

"Ooh, that's a lot," she said. "Some personal things with my sister and me happened. We kind of fell off, so I ended up having to move out. Now I'm in a teen shelter. Life, it just finds a way to turn around."

It wasn't the first time she'd been homeless. Diamond said her mom kicked her out when she was 13, and she went couch-hopping. And years later, she lived out of her sister's car. Growing up, she moved around from one school to another, from Minneapolis to Duluth to North St. Paul. But losing her home in her final year of high school was not what she'd envisioned for herself.

And now, college and a career were no longer top of mind.

"I'm already stressed about school, graduation, working and my living situation," she said. "So I don't want to stress myself out more. My dreams of being a computer engineer are slowly dying."

When forced to think, really think, about her situation, she had nothing but questions for how she ended up like this. 

Diamond's English teacher gave the class a writing assignment. 

"The next question was, 'What would you like to know that you have never learned, or what do you want to know more about?' My answers were, 'What makes parents give up on their children? Why do I work three jobs at 17? Why am I homeless? Why can't I be happy and stress-free? What's the real purpose of school? Why does family hurt you the most?'" 

She added, "Sometimes I just imagine if when I was younger, if my mom did just give me away, like just give me to foster care, if my life would be different, if my personality would be different. I just think about that every day. All the time."

Diamond doesn't have a typical high school experience. She has no friends, just a few adults at school who are in her corner. Some of the teachers and staff know what Diamond is going through.

"You just shake your head," said Michelle Christenson, who runs the Beacon alternative program at Kennedy, "and say, 'Gosh, how do these kids do this and get through it?'"

Christenson said she's in awe of Diamond, even at her low points. 

Back in January, Diamond was having a bad week. The stress of living in a shelter and not having a stable life was sometimes too much for a 17-year-old to bear. 

And Diamond lost it. A staff person at the school criticized her for being late to class. This is how Diamond remembers reacting:

"You're making me even more mad because you know my situation and then you're going to tell me to get to school on time? All right, OK, how about you adopt me? Adopt me! Drive me to school. Come pick me up. Maybe I'll get here on time."

She called the woman a word that she immediately regretted — and apologized for it.

Michelle Christenson told Diamond to leave the school so the situation wouldn't get any worse. Next thing Diamond knew, she was sitting on a bus.

"I'm so happy that Mrs. Christenson told me to leave because if she didn't tell me to leave, something probably would have happened really bad," she said. "I was like, 'I was crying? I was shaking crying?' Oh yeah, you're lucky you told me to leave. I haven't been like that in a long time. I'm a better person now, and I don't want to be the old Diamond."

Diamond's entire life has been like this: fight or flight.

A couple of months later, I met Diamond before her shift at a clothing store at the Mall of America. She was still determined to graduate, but it was going to be even tougher. 

It was March. Diamond was still in the shelter, had no leads on another place to live, and was facing an ominous deadline.

"My time is up on the 15th of this month, so March 15," she said. 

"That's next week," I said. 

"Yeah, thanks for telling me. It is. It definitely is next week."

Diamond's mind had been racing. She was having trouble sleeping and eating because she had so much to think about.

With all that had been thrown at her, she felt like she was building a pyramid that kept crumbling. She wanted to know what she was doing wrong: 

"Am I missing something? I feel like I'm missing something very important. For example, you have a dad and a mom. What's their job? To be a dad and a mom. 'Where are you at?' Where am I? Who's with me? Nobody's doing their job. Nobody."

The research would agree with Diamond. Parental involvement is strongly linked with children's success in school.  

I wanted to call Diamond's mom, but she didn't want me to contact her.

Later in the spring, Diamond found a more stable place to live. It was a transitional living center in St. Paul, just for youth, and she could stay there for a much longer stretch of time.

Last month at Kennedy, Diamond met with Mrs. C — Michelle Christenson, who coordinates the Beacon program. 

"I want to talk to you about your credits," Christenson said. "Wrap up where we are."

She had good news. Diamond was still on track to graduate in June.

Christenson told Diamond that she knew she would succeed. If the last year had proved anything, it's her dedication.

"It's hard, because I've never been in your shoes," she said. "And I know you, along with several other students, have to work 30-40 hours a week, and come to school for another 30-some hours a week. It's exhausting."

"It is very exhausting," Diamond agreed.

"But you've done it! And you're going to get through it, and you're going to graduate in June."

"I won't feel better until my grandma gets here."

Her grandma was coming from out of state. Once she saw her, Diamond said, she'd finally know that graduation day was for real — and that she'd made it.

Shortly after that conversation, Diamond stopped returning my texts for a while. And she started missing a lot more school.

She has only 16 more days to go until the end of the year, but if she's absent just one more time, she will have to go to summer school.

I heard from Diamond today. "I'm not OK," she texted me. 

I wrote back, "What happened? I'm concerned."

She responded with just one word that seemed to sum it up: "Life."