(Photo by Michael Fischer)
When the senior class of 2013 walks across the stage in the Field House at Spencer High School on Sunday, Christine Lowe will not be a part of commencement festivities.
Instead, her graduation will be a little more low-key but certainly of no less significant when she collects her diploma with the Central Academy class of 2013.
Lowe was a member of the class of 2012 at SHS, starting at the high school with her classmates as a freshman in 2008. Many of those she began her journey with graduated last year.
During their high school years, many of her peers tried out for drama, joined choir, participated in sports, discovered art or took advantage of the variety of opportunities available to high school students. Lowe took another path.
But looking back, she wouldn't have it any other way. It made her the person she is today.
"I had 11 credits in my senior year when I started back to Central Academy. I have earned 35 credits in about 18 months. That's crazy," Lowe said, noting it was simply "mind over matter. It was something I had to do."
What makes her accomplishment even more remarkable are the obstacles she had to overcome, beginning with herself, her history and the fact she's been her sole source of support since turning 18 years of age.
To appreciate Lowe's journey, it's important to understand her past.
"My mom had me when she was 16. My grandparents always looked after me. My mom was off doing her own thing. She was still young," Lowe said.
Her father was around until she was 5 or 6 before he was sentenced to prison in Nebraska -- where he remains today.
Her mother entered into a relationship with a man who filled the father role in her life for a few years, but the two went their separate ways when she was 12, creating a void in her life.
"Since he moved we're not as close as we used to be, but he's there when I need him," she said. "I have really bad trust issues. Whenever someone is around me and tells me they love me, they leave."
She had friends, but today she believes most of them were just afraid of her. Lowe admitted to dealing with anger management issues as a young teen. It was her behavior, influenced by those conditions, which led her to dismiss school daily and eventually resulted in her expulsion from Spencer High School in March of 2011.
Telling the story, she said a teacher took her cellphone from her in class and she just "blacked out" and tossed her books across the room into an "expensive" cabinet.
"My friends were scared of me. I've always had a tough exterior. Looking back on that, it's tough to talk about. That doesn't seem like me at all," Lowe said.
It was the expulsion that prompted her to take a hard look at where her life was heading. She took some time to evaluate her situation and the future on the road ahead of her if she didn't turn things around. She decided it was time for a complete transformation -- inside and out.
She began taking medication to deal with bipolar behavior and anxiety to help get both under control.
"I lost 53 pounds," she said with a smile. "I just wanted to be a new person. I was just so tired of being myself. I wanted to make myself better in any way that I could."
She returned to school, taking classes at Central Academy, an alternate school opportunity for students in the Spencer Community Schools Administration Building. She also found herself forced to begin life as an independent adult.
"I started living with my grandparents permanently when I was in fourth grade, and stayed with them most of the time until I was 18. Then they moved to the Sunset Apartments so I couldn't live with them. When I turned 18, I had to find a place to live," Lowe explained.
Since October 2011 she has been making a life for herself in her own apartment. She was working at a local restaurant when she moved out and needed to change jobs to pay her bills. While completing 35 credits worth of class work, she began working an average of 32 hours a week as a personal service assistant at Riverview Terrace Assisted Living home, and taking an additional CNA class through the high school.
"I love my job there," Lowe said. "Hopefully I'm going to be able to start as a CNA in June."
She explained the challenges of juggling "her life."
Lowe admitted, "Getting out on my own has done a lot for me. If I struggle in this amount of time, in the future this is going to be so beneficial to me. When there's pain, there's reward. You've just go to stick through it."
Looking back, as she prepares for her graduation ceremony Thursday, May 23, "I didn't go to school. I didn't want to go to school. I might go for first or second period and then leave for the rest of the day. I didn't want to go to school. I didn't think I would ever get my diploma. Then I got expelled. I asked myself, 'What is my future going to look like without this?'
She continued, "I'm nothing like that now. The outside, the inside. I'm so used to how I am now. Thinking about how I was, I used to hate life. Now I love life."
Lowe called Central Academy the "best thing that ever happened to me. I loved Central Academy. They're so supportive. So personal."
The soon-to-be 2013 grad credited her teacher at the Academy for helping her see the program to completion.
"Anne Roberts," Lowe smiled. "She's tough on you. She wants everyone to graduate and everyone to go to college. She's a wonderful teacher."
Roberts calls herself "lucky" to have gotten to know this special student.
"She was a great leader here and actually spearheaded us doing more community service as a group. It was fun to see her blossom in that role," Roberts said.
The teacher continued, "I think for most people, change is difficult. She is a pretty remarkable young woman. Instead of being a victim, she chose to take control of the things that she could control and prevailed."
She also acknowledged Spencer High School guidance counselor Glenn Graettinger's influence along the way.
"Even when I was still at the high school, we had a good relationship. But he was always on my butt about 'why are you doing this' or 'why are you doing that.' He saw potential in me. He saw past my tough exterior to who I really was. Even when my friends couldn't."
"She's one of those kids who took advantage of the opportunities presented for her," Graettinger said. "She never looked for the easy way out. ... She's an inspiration and a role model to those kids coming up."
He added, "She's why we educators enjoy our jobs and come back year after year."
The Spencer High School guidance counselor acknowledged the important role Central Academy played in her success.
"It was a perfect fit over there," He said. "It provided her with the opportunity to show her independence, her intelligence, and have a high level of success."
But she admits things are still tough. While most seniors were spending time with parents reviewing scholarship opportunities, filing out college applications or looking forward to job opportunities, Lowe is on her own.
"Kids are able to take advantage of their parents," she said. "Things like filling out applications. I don't know what to put."
Among the rewards for her change of direction and a renewed effort to continue her education, the Spencer Hy-Noon Kiwanis Scholarship Committee awarded her one of its $1,000 club scholarships to help offset some of her initial expenses.
"I'm really thankful for the Kiwanis for looking past my GPA and reading my essay to find out who I really am. I really did it (filled out the scholarship application) to make Mr. Graettinger happy. I never thought anything would come from it."
Sue Salton, who chaired the local Kiwanis scholarship committee, said normally the GPA would have been a red flag, but as she dug deeper in preparation, she found out there was more to the story.
"When I started reading the letter of recommendation from Mr. Graettinger and I looked at her GPA, I saw it was really low at the beginning of her high school years and had gotten better. And I read her essay," Salton explained. "I wanted our scholarship committee to really read her story."
Lowe was invited to participate in the interview process and she won the committee's hearts.
"During her interview process, we learned an awful lot about Christine," Salton continued. "When she was kicked out of school, she had a choice at that point. She chose to turn her life around. We were impressed by her charm, her wit, her self-confidence and her ability to connect with adults."
And her time with the committee marked a first.
"It was the very first time where our scholarship committee had met and everyone of us -- our eyes were filled with tears. She is what the Kiwanis motto is all about: Helping children one at a time. This is somebody who just needs some help to get where she wants to be."
While Lowe has her life headed in the right direction, her relationship with her mother remains distant.
"I talk to her maybe once every two weeks when I call her. She just kind of does her own thing," Lowe said, fighting tears. "It sucks. Why would you bring me into this world if you're not going to be there for me. But her being like that made me a stronger person."
She explained her mother helped her turn things around. "My change was focused more on my mom. I'm not having kids until I'm married. I'm using her as my motivation."
As for her father, though he is serving time in Nebraska, the two speak on a weekly basis.
"I get to talk to him two times a week on Tuesdays and Friday for 15 minutes on the phone," Lowe said. "He's proud and he's sad because he's not here. He feels bad because I have to do it by myself and I shouldn't have to."
She continued, "My dad's really spiritual now. He feels like all this happening to me is a blessing to him too. It's all in God's hands. He changed my life like this. He's setting up my path for me."
Her father sent a letter to Graettinger thanking him for being there for his daughter.
"The letter my dad wrote to him, I read it three times and I cried every time."
She will be taking summer classes to become an LPN and hopes to complete her education and continue to care for others.
"I want to be able to work as an LPN while I get my Associates Degree in Nursing," she revealed. "Then I really want to live in Colorado and get my Bachelor's Degree in nursing there."
"It's different. It's away from everything else. People here think they know me from my past. I want a fresh start. I want to be new," Lowe explained. "I think everyone can get a new beginning."
"And I love the Broncos," she added.
"I believe that whatever Christine puts her mind to, she will be able to achieve it. She is bright, hardworking, and goal-oriented. She knows what it takes to be able to be successful," Roberts said.
Graettinger agreed, saying what she's accomplished needs to be respected.
"I can't quantify it in terms of a number," he said of the number of kids who have not been able to overcome the challenges Lowe has faced. "Everything she's had to deal with, it's definitely a testament to her will and drive. She won't give up. She wants to be a winner and she's going to be a winner."
Lowe admitted to being proud of her turnaround and is appreciative of the support she has received, but sees it as simply doing what she had to do.
"It's so great coming from where I came from," she said, "and everybody thinks it's so cool what I'm doing. But what choice did I have? It's the only thing I could do."