Quirky, creative and a defender of outcasts, Tess McWhorter's attitude about high school was never high. Handing in homework was a hassle, and all she ever wanted was to just move on in life.
But Tess made it to the finish line in June — graduating from Ashland High School with the rest of her friends. The question is how? And why? The answer is: self-determination, hard work and support from her teachers, family and friends.
Tess is 18 and a full-bodied girl, with blue eyes and curly blond hair that is normally straightened. She smiles frequently. Tonight, at her graduation party, she wears a bright, printed dress with a short-sleeved hoodie with skulls spattered across it. Seven small stars, the colors of the rainbow, are tattooed on the lobe of her right ear.
She is exhausted from staying up until 3 a.m., celebrating her graduation with friends at the Family Fun Center, but her smile is still there. People come and go, bringing gifts, conversing and eating salmon burgers, homemade pasta salads, chips and salsa.
"Holy moly," says Tess, with giggles of excitement. "I'm done with high school. I feel like I finally have freedom."
Growing up Tess
Tess has lived in Ashland all of her life, the past 10 years in a mobile home park. Her room is painted vibrant blue and her curtains are purple. The doors of the room are painted bright yellow. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor. Disney movies, fantasy novels, clothes and video games are scattered across the floor. Her video game machines rest beneath the shelf of her television.
She has one brother, Chase, who is still in high school. Her parents separated when she was 7 years old and divorced when she was 14.
"It didn't impact me when they separated," she said.
She never lived with her dad, and only hung out with him a few times a month. She was supposed to spend the night once a week with him, but she always resisted.
"It is a guy's house," she said. "It just smells like guy over there."
She has typical passions and pastimes for a teenager: softball since the age of 7; art, especially painting with acrylics; and reading. Her troubles aren't as typical. Her freshman year she dealt with her mom dating a guy who she did not get along with. She said he made comments about her eating habits, telling her that eating junk food would make her fat and unattractive.
"I'd be like, 'Well no, but it makes me feel better about myself,'" she said. "Then I would yell, cry and lock myself in the bedroom."
Tess' mom dated him for two years, but ended the relationship partly because of the conflict between him and Tess.
During her sophomore year she declared that she wanted to drop out. However, her parents told her that wasn't an option.
"Our society does not have a lot of rites of passage," said Sara Stearns, Tess' mom. "And high school is a major rite of passage and so I did not want her to rob herself of that."
So, Tess pushed on.
Through her sophomore and junior year she struggled to pass her classes. Her parents tried to support and help her along the way.
"If you ask her, I was always screaming and yelling at her," said Randy McWhorter, Tess' dad. "If you ask me, I would tell her I will do all I can to help her but she is mature enough to do well in her classes."
She graduated with minimum requirements: a 2.15 GPA, a C average.
"I knew I didn't want to go to college," Tess said. "So I goofed off until this year."
But it wasn't easy catching up and hanging on. Midyear Tess found out she was missing a physical science class she thought she had taken. She was called to her counselor's office where he explained the situation and told her she may not graduate.
"I was shocked," Tess said. "I thought I had made the credit. I was to the point of tears."
Her counselor worked with Tess and her mother, suggesting an online class which could give her the credit to graduate. Tess took it, but continued down the path of carelessness.
"I knew from talking with her folks that she was struggling in school," said Matthew McKinnon, an old-time friend of the family and Tess' government teacher. "They knew she was not excited about the process of high school and she wanted to move on."
Tess rarely talked in class. She was afraid her peers would think she was weird.
"I've always found teenagers intimidating," Tess said. "I have a panic attack going to the mall."
Faculty at Ashland High School recognized her lack of participation.
"Tess is fairly quiet in class," McKinnon said. "She has definite and strong opinions, but she lets other people dominate the discussion."
Caroline Spear, Tess' English teacher for the class Writing from the Edge: Outlaws, Outcasts and Exiles agrees.
"Tess is quiet," she said. "I think she is not afraid to speak her mind, but the classroom is not her preferred venue."
Both teachers agree Tess is not afraid to speak up for the outcast.
"Whenever Tess talks in class, she speaks for someone other than herself," Spear said. "She was defending an outcast and downtrodden person."
Tess wanted to avoid high school dating and promised herself no boyfriends during high school.
"I think Tess recognizes that there is a lot of immature behavior that happens in high school," McKinnon said. "She separated herself from that because she was ready to go on to the next step in her adult life."
As if the struggles in school weren't enough, Tess struggled with friends. Life was hectic. And friends often made her the middleman. She had to be the mediator with normal high school drama and also the middleman for her friends and their boyfriends.
"I get sucked into everybody else's drama," Tess said.
But even in the middle of her friends' problems, she is comfortable with who she is.
"She is not a followe r," Spear said. "She is someone who listens to her own drum beat."
Tess' parents confirmed that when Tess does not want to do something she struggles to get it done. When she wants to do something she is eager to accomplish it. The trick to finishing high school was finding a good reason for it.
A reason to graduate
Tess had no interest in going to college. She also had no desire to work in fast food. After a long talk with her mother, she realized she loved doing hair. She had cut and colored her own hair and that of her mom and friends. She started dreaming of becoming a stylist, of even owning her own salon.
With a new goal in mind, Tess wanted to graduate.
Teachers picked up on her enthusiasm and reminded Tess to turn in her homework.
"I am so proud of her. Tess is graduating," Spear said. "I am going to be cheering when they call out her name."
"I thought she had a really good senior year," her father said. "It was nice to see that she buckled down her senior year so that she could finish.
"She has always been pretty creative," he said. "Given the fact that she wasn't in the brainiac group, I think going to beauty school is a good choice for Tess."
Tess was on track to leave in August for the International Beauty School of Cosmetology in Eugene. The one-year program covers hair and nails and costs $8,000 a year, not including room and board.
The girl who struggled to finish high school earned a vocational school scholarship from Soroptimist International, an international woman's organization. Her mom plans to pay for the rest.
It will mean leaving her family and friends behind.
"Even though we are going our separate ways, we aren't going to lose contact," said Becca Williams, a friend of Tess' since preschool. "Because of the friendship we have, she could live across the world and it wouldn't matter. We would still be friends."
Despite the distance, her parents have faith in her. As her father told her, "If you have the patience and the perseverance and at least a little enthusiasm, you can achieve what you want to achieve in any situation education wise."
It's graduation day. The party is planned. The invitations have been sent out. Tess goes to a friend's house, where the two girls squeal in anticipation of the big ceremony and giggle like the little girls they used to be. It is the biggest moment in their lives — so far — and they get to spend it together.
It is a wet moment, as rain clouds gather over Lithia Park and soak the students in their caps and gowns and the family and friends who did not think of bringing umbrellas.
When the name Tess McWhorter is called, she walks down the red carpet and across the bandshell stage. Her hair and face are wet and her cap is thrashed, but she has a diploma in her hand and moves her wet tassel from one side to the other, making the statement that she is done with high school.
Family, teachers and friends cheer. Tess smiles.