"The thing about Thomas Duran is that there's a story that's not being told about him. It's a story that maybe his personality and accomplishments overshadow, but it's a beautiful story."
—Rob Ames, teacher
He bebops down the hallway on his way to class like a cross between Bart Simpson and Albert Einstein, the undersized recruit of some intellectual motorcycle gang on his way to Sturgis to recite poetry. Or maybe he's just one of the kids off The Sandlot. Anyway you put it, he's the latest and greatest in a string of Boettcher scholars from Delta High School, and his name is Thomas Duran.
"Hey, Duran," says St. Jean, catching sight of Thomas in one of his signature muscle shirts, "Don't you need muscles to go with that shirt?" Thomas just smiles. He's got a comeback. He always has a comeback. But today he just smiles, and for good reason.
He's put together a 4.2 GPA while working nearly 30 hours a week at Taco Time over the last two years. He's senior class president, co-president of FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America), president and a board member of CFES (College for Every Student), committee chair for Key Club, and media director for the JOY team (Jesus, Others, then Yourself) at his church. His ACT scores look more like a Michael Jordan scoring spree than college entrance numbers (32 is his career high), and now he's got this full-ride to CU-Boulder where he plans to major in chemical engineering. Yes indeed, he's got a dream in his heart and a winning lottery ticket on his shoulders, but life hasn't always been so rosy.
A Way Out
When Thomas was about five years old, his family began to experience severe financial problems. Albert and Leta Duran moved in with Leta's grandmother, taking their two children with them into the tighter living quarters. Thomas' bedroom was a walk-in closet adorned with a privacy curtain. "I was too young to realize everything that was happening at the time," says Thomas, "so I thought moving to my great-grandma's was more like a permanent vacation. But I saw my mom cry on the phone with bill collectors. I'd see her come home from three jobs just burnt out but determined, because she knew it had to be done."
"I remember one time we had a mortgage payment due," Thomas continues, "and we had nothing — no way to make it happen. My mom went out to the red shed — I can see it like it was yesterday — and pulled out two totes with her summer clothes. I asked her what she was doing and she said, 'I've got to get rid of these. We've got a bill to pay.' And she sold all her tank tops and summer shorts to help make a mortgage payment. That was one of the defining moments when I realized the sacrifices my parents were making."
Thomas' dad, Albert, a high school dropout at age 14, did his best to help the family make ends meet, but times were tough. Nevertheless, Albert's work ethic inspired Thomas to strive for great things. "I get my work ethic from my father," says Thomas. "When he found out I had to get braces, my dad got a job at the sawmill up in Montrose. His shift started at 4 a.m. He'd get done about 3 p.m. and by 3:30 he'd be putting in carpet or fixing a hole in the wall somewhere at another job. My dad works from sun up till after it goes down."
Still, for most of his life, Thomas' family experienced a little too much month left at the end of their money. "My parents argued all day, everyday, about some kind of financial problem," says Thomas. "It killed me because I was too young to be able to do anything about it. I got thrown into a situation that I had no control over. That's when I made the decision that education was going to be my way out." Thomas was eight years old.
Now 18, with the Boettcher feather in his cap, Duran says, "I've worked my whole life to receive some way to pay for college because I knew my parents weren't going to be able to help at all. Education was always my way out. When I finally got to see the look on my parents' faces — that look of relief that it wasn't on their shoulders anymore, that they didn't have to feel the guilt of not being able to provide for me — that meant more to me than anything."
More than Smarts
Thomas Duran has always been smart. "He knows way more math than I will ever know," says Renee Cronenberg, the aforementioned "St. Jean," and a veteran math teacher at Delta High School. "In my 17 years of teaching, he is probably the smartest kid I've ever taught. If there's ever a question that I don't understand, I put it up and have Thomas explain it."
Still, Thomas languished when it came to extracurricular involvement. Cronenberg took the scrawny prodigy aside as a ninth grader, straight A's and all, and challenged him. "I asked him what he was going to do when he graduated," says Cronenberg. "He told me he was going to get the Boettcher and go wherever he wanted to school. I then asked him what clubs and activities he was involved in, and he had nothing. So I said, 'Well, good luck with that. You better get involved in everything because it's not just about grades.'"
Duran took her advice to heart and began a trek of involvement that continues at a breakneck pace to this day. "St. Jean helped me flick the switch, " says Duran, "and I learned to manage my time. When you work from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and have a full course-load and you're involved, you value your time. You're only given a certain number of minutes and you don't know how many that is, so you learn to make the most out of every single one!"
While Thomas continued to excel at school, the Durans continued to struggle financially. Then Thomas made a decision prior to his junior year to pursue a job at Taco Time and contribute to the family coffers.
"I finally got old enough to make a difference," says Thomas. "It's hard for parents when they know their one job is to make sure their kids have everything they need, and they're not able to do that. They weren't really in favor of me getting a job, but I wanted to. And since I've had this job, they haven't had a single financial fight, and we've been able to enjoy some of the small things in life.
"I've learned to enjoy the little things," continues Thomas, "because when you look back on them, they're really the big things. Don't take life too seriously or you'll miss out on some very important moments."
The Next Challenge
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has said that he doesn't like to write profiles of people because he believes "we are incapable of truly describing a person's core ... people are more complicated than our profiles reflect."1 Such is the case with Thomas Duran, this brilliant young Boettcher Man from Delta High School who has risen above poverty and hardship to become the first person in his family to go to college, much less win a scholarship of any kind.
"My mom had this quote," says Duran, "'You can't choose where you come from, but you can choose where you go from there.' She instilled that in me and taught me to be a 'try-er.' You're not always going to succeed. There are going to be times when you scrape your knees and fail, flat-out. But you should always keep trying because those failures are going to teach you something that will make you better for the next challenge."
For Duran, the next challenge lies just ahead. Compelled onward by his zest for life and his insatiable curiosity, Duran says this: "The driving force in my life is possibility. One of the things I'm most scared of is getting to the end of the line and realizing I missed some opportunities. If it means a couple less hours of sleep, so be it because I'm going to make the most of this one shot that I've got. Possibility keeps me going."
So, don't have a cow, man. Einstein's on his way with a hole in his pants and a new blue hat.
But those are just little things.
1 Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, eds. Telling True Stories. New York. Plume, 2007.
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