Leslie Lerback

One month before officially becoming a senior at Roseburg High School, Leslie Lerback got the news.

Her mother, Maureen, had decided to move out of the bright yellow duplex, and Leslie was not invited to move with her. In two weeks, she would have to find a new place to live.

It was mid-May, and Leslie spent the last two weeks of school couch-surfing at the homes of friends. When school ended, Leslie remembered what her Aunt Eva had told her once: "Any time you need anything, just call."

Leslie did. And later that night, on July 3, 2008, she moved to Central Point to live with Aunt Eva and cousins Chelsea and Cameron in a three-bedroom house.

"I don't know if I made the right choice," she says now, looking back, "but I definitely made a choice."

The bedroom that Leslie shares with Chelsea has two twin beds. It is decorated with posters of their favorite band and rough sketches the girls have created and thumbtacked on the walls. Leslie's guitar case, covered with silent lyrics and notes waiting to be heard in acrylic paint, is there by the bed. She says she carries it everywhere, strapped to her back — even on the two-and-a-half-hour walk she used to make after her shift filing medical records at the Kidney and Hypertension Center in Roseburg.

She would make the trek often at night in jeans and Converse. There was little fear from this short, red-haired young woman carrying herself through the long walks still at a quickened pace.

"I would love to be in a band," Leslie says. "I'm always looking to be part of band."

Until she arrived at Crater High School, Leslie's music career was more of a wish than a reality. When she had to decide between Crater's four different charter schools, each with their own emphasis, she chose the "Renaissance Academy" because it might offer a new outlet for her creativity.

Chelsea was also a senior at Renaissance, which gave Leslie a chance to get to know some new friends after leaving her buddies in Roseburg. She jumped right into her cousin's social group, but says what she initially felt from them was a sense of pity.

"I got the feeling people felt badly for me and my situation," says Leslie. "I was able to just hang out with all my cousin's friends."

Her creative drive placed her into an art class for the first time in years. It wasn't long before her teacher, Katie Barber, noticed her new student had talent beyond that of the rest of the class.

"I knew she should be in AP visual arts," Mrs. Barber says. "I am extremely impressed with Leslie. She is one of the most serious students we had this year and she's doing it because she loves it. She tackles new ideas and new territory."

Before long, Leslie's work was spotlighted in the school's exhibits, and one of her pieces was chosen to hang in the lobby of the school's new performing arts center.

It is an acrylic abstract suggesting human and natural forms, with a color scheme that captivates the planetary and eye-shaped bodies in nature through time and space.

Seventh period, advanced placement art, is the best class ever, according to Leslie. Five days a week she gets to explore new media and new ways to express herself. It makes school the center of her life.

On this particular day, Leslie strolls out of the art room, where she has been working with clay, and over to Mr. Walley's music class.

"Hi Leslie," he says. "We are just criticizing the yearbook."

"That's easy to do," Leslie responds, in a tone that shows no surprise.

"Look at this art page," Mr. Walley continues to his music class. "Why is Leslie not here? This guy is a musician. Leslie should be here. She's one of the best."

"Oh, I came to tell you that that cup is done, glazed and everything," says Leslie, then tries to up the stakes. "There is only one other bidder right now at $10. It's really not that much."

"Oh, Leslie. You know I will top any bidder unless it is just something someone has got to have," Mr. Walley says. "Can I just get it from you on Thursday?"

"Yeah, that's fine," she says. It is the first sale of her art, and she is happy no matter who has the highest bid.

Leslie heads back to art class with her latest sculpture in hand, walking and chiseling off one shaving at a time. The work reveals a kneeling figure.

"You know the fingers for that cup are still in the firing room," Mrs. Barber says. "Did you see them?"

"I know they fell off when it was firing," Leslie says. There is a hint of disappointment in her voice. "I still like it."

"Is this really the first time you've worked with clay?" Mrs. Barber asks.

"Since like second grade," Leslie replies. "I did it one time then."

Leslie says she's not sure she would have discovered art if she had stayed in Roseburg. "I'm not sure I could have made it in Roseburg, here it's "¦" She pauses briefly. "I'm glad I came."

Mrs. Barber reminds the class to clean up their work stations since it is the end of the day. Leslie scrubs down her area with a sponge and carefully sweeps a tidy pile of shavings into the trash.

She heads out into the hallway and out to the parking lot off of Highway 99, across it, over the tracks and through a field. It is the shortest distance to her aunt's house in the neighborhood where tragedy struck just over one week before graduation.

A boy they knew from school, from a family they'd known for years, died in a car accident that week. A memorial service was scheduled the same day as senior skip day. While their friends enjoyed cold sodas at Lost Creek Lake, Leslie, Chelsea and group of Crater students and graduates planned to attend the memorial service.

Leslie was reminded of her friend Jack, who had died only two years before in a drowning accident outside of Roseburg.

"It was in the summer and there was a viewing I went to," Leslie said. "I'd never seen a dead body before then. It was strange seeing my friend there. He's never going to open his eyes again, he's never going to walk again, and he's never going to sing again."

Eva drove up to the curb of the school that day, and the girls loaded into the full car for the drive to Medford. The white memorial center gleamed in the sunlight of the warm day.

People filed in one at a time to sign the guest book. The air was filled with sobs.

The girls sat together in the third row as a box of tissue made its way around the room.

Kevin's favorite tunes played in the background as the room filled with friends and family. People exchanged silent hugs. The pastor spoke his piece and then invited people to come up to the podium to share their memories. Kevin had recently driven Chelsea, Leslie and some other friends to Portland for a concert.

"Kevin was the kind of friend that you could always count on," said Chelsea with the tissue wadded tightly in her hand. "He was always there whenever I needed him."

Chelsea hugged Kevin's father and gestured to his seated mother as she returned to her seat. Others spoke largely about supporting the family as they dealt with Kevin's death.

Leslie thought she needed to celebrate's Kevin life as she walked up to the front.

"I only met Kevin about two times, but I remember when we went to Portland," Leslie started. "It was so nice of him to drive. I don't even think he liked the band. We got lost driving around Portland one night, and it was so funny because everyone was like, 'Do you know where we are?' and everyone said, 'No. Arrrrghhh!!' It was really funny." The crowd chuckled.

Afterward, Leslie said the memorial service gave her some perspective on life. She said she understands how life can change in an instant.

"It seems like it's not so fragile on a day-to-day basis," she said. "You can either worry about dying or you can live."

Leslie is living. At the end of school she was named AP Studio Art Student of the Year. She has been accepted into the University of Oregon. And today is graduation day.

"I'm numb towards graduation," she says. "It's going to be just another day. It's a great thing. I've known it was going to happen all along."

But the day has its unique memories. Leslie's shoulders are roasted red from the many hours under the sun practicing for the commencement ceremony. And the family has assembled at Aunt Eva's for a pre-ceremony dinner celebrating Leslie and Chelsea's achievements. As the graduates walk in the door, the family cheers. Among them is Leslie's mom, Maureen.

"I'm so proud of you," Maureen says. "You've come such a long way."

Her mom has pledged to help her pay for college. Leslie has received scholarships from both the Carpenter Foundation and the Becca Harkins Memorial Trust. But the balance will still be a challenge. Friends and family offer her words of encouragement and support and hand her gifts and cards as they prepare to leave.

"I think graduating and my accomplishment are finally sinking in," Leslie says.

"Don't you think that is a bit much?" Principal Bob King is looking at the technicolor socks Leslie is wearing under her white sandals, below her long white gown, as she gathers with friends in the Crater gym. She laughs and removes the socks. She won't need them to stand out tonight.

As the sea of 350 white- and black-gowned students parade into the stadium, she is in there somewhere. When they finally call her name, she thrusts both fists into the air. She struts across the stage, shaking board members' hands and receives her mock diploma in front of a sold-out stadium.

What seemed to take forever is over in a few short seconds.

Of course, graduation is never the end of the story, or the beginning.

At a party afterward, Leslie begins saying her goodbyes.

"I'm taking off," she tells a friend. "I'll talk to you later."

"Where you going?"

"I'm headed up to Roseburg," she answers. "My sister is at a baby shower in Medford and I'm going to catch a ride with her. But we should definitely hang out this summer."

"When are you going to be back?"

"I don't know exactly, but I will be back through."

With school over, Leslie has come full circle. She's not sure where she will live this summer — maybe here, maybe Roseburg, maybe Eugene, maybe with her mom in Dallas, a little town west of Salem.

She's off to pack a bag from the pile of clothes pushed onto the floor from the night before.

Then she's on the road again. Destination unknown.

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