Can Bill Gates Rescue Evelyn Cabrera?

The journey of one high school senior through the small-school experiment of America's most generous philanthropist

By February, Evelyn has been admitted to Johnson and Wales University, which has six campuses; the closest one to the Bronx is in Providence, Rhode Island. She's still waiting to hear from New York Institute of Technology, her top choice.

Recently though, she has been mentioning to Joan Ruley, now the school's college counselor, that she's considering taking a semester off and starting college in January 2007 instead of in the fall. This is the first time Ruley has heard Evelyn talk about not going to college right away, and the counselor worries that Evelyn has gotten too caught up with her part-time Starbucks job and her boyfriend, Ben.

Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.
photo: Fiona Aboud
Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.


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A few weeks later, at the beginning of March, Evelyn comes to school to say goodbye to her crew leader Jay Lee, who is leaving for the rest of the year on paternity leave. Through tears, she thanks him for everything he's done for her and hugs him. After Lee leaves, Evelyn's left to finish up her remaining credits with Brian Ford, the world history teacher with thick long red hair, a full beard, and the appearance of a college professor with his corduroy blazer, wool scarf, and button pinned to his lapel that says "Is this fascism yet?"

On this day, Evelyn has lost her "Eevee" earrings, the ones she has worn every day for a year. She has replaced them with another pair—silver and gold block letters that spell "Ben," her boyfriend's name. She is now convinced she needs a break from school. Just last week, a classmate called her a cow and a bitch as the two passed each other in the hallway between classes. Normally, Evelyn would ignore comments like that. But this time, she spoke up and got in the girl's face, almost getting into a fight before teachers calmed Evelyn down. "I'm regressing," Evelyn says. "I don't usually let that stuff bother me anymore."

Evelyn blames the self-described regression on her grandmother for always criticizing how she looks, the clothes she wears. All she can think about now is getting out of her grandmother's house. She wants to be independent, but her grandmother insists she follow house rules. She begged her father to move back to the Bronx so she could move in with him, but Ismael, now working for Federal Express at Newark airport, is waiting to hear about his request to be transferred to LaGuardia. Because he works so many hours, he doesn't want to have the long commute to New Jersey every day.

Since her father doesn't have immediate plans to move, Evelyn, having just turned 18 in February, now wants to get her own place with Ben. She hates to depend on others, but she can't take another day living with her grandmother and Ben's weekly paycheck from Dunkin' Donuts equals her monthly wages from Starbucks. He could cover her expenses until she graduates in June, when she can start working full-time. And Ben says he wants to take care of her. A few weeks earlier, as the two were riding the train to have dinner with Ben's mother, he asked Evelyn, "Will you be my wifey?"

"See, in the ghetto world, that just means, 'Will you be my serious girlfriend?' " Evelyn explains. "So I didn't really take him all that seriously."

But two weeks later, Evelyn comes to school wearing a 14-karat white gold, cubic zirconia ring on her left ring finger. She and Ben got engaged. Her mother, who lately has been trying to repair her relationship with Evelyn, is taking them out to dinner that evening to celebrate. Her father, however, doesn't approve, and he's moving back to the Bronx by the end of the month. He will commute to Newark until his work transfer comes through. His main objective now is to convince Evelyn to go straight to college and to move in with him.

As Evelyn notices him shaking his head about her plans to move in with Ben, she pulls a chair up next to her father and asks, "So, what are you saying about me?"

"Well, I'm trying to decide what institution I'm going to send you to," Ismael responds.

Evelyn explains again to him that she isn't ready for college and that she'll start a certificate program and then go to college later. She has looked at different business certificate programs with Bronx Guild's counselors, but they also want to steer her back to going to college right away. Joan Ruley has pleaded with her to at least go to college part-time in the fall. "Even one or two classes would be better than nothing," Ruley told her.

Ismael and the college counselors worry that if Evelyn doesn't go to college now, she never will. Even though she can't convince them, Evelyn believes she will eventually go to school. "It's one of my goals," she says, "and I'm not going to give that up. I just need to be ready for it."

Last June, Evelyn graduated from Bronx Guild, along with 51 out of the 75 students who started with her in 2002, or nearly double the citywide average.

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