Park Rapids senior overcomes big obstacles to graduate this year
When Pomp and Circumstance sends Park Rapids Area High School seniors on the path to claim diplomas, Alex Berthelsen will be among them.
But the odds were against it.
The "second year senior" entered the high school hallway in September needing 31 credits to graduate. Traditional students accrue 21 per year, seven credits a trimester.
"Looking back, I don't know how I did it," Alex admits. "I never thought it was possible. I had lost hope for everything... until this year."
Alex's home life was far from typical. When his mother and stepfather divorced, financial issues strained the household, the family moving from house to house.
"I was taking care of my brother and sister while my mom worked," he said of cooking, cleaning and laundry duties. At 17, he got a job and quit going to school. He didn't formally drop out; he simply stopped attending.
"At the beginning of my first senior year, I told myself I wouldn't be able to do it," he recalled. "Even if I'd completed the third trimester, I wouldn't have graduated."
He parted company with his family, losing contact with his mother and sister. He moved in with a friend, but it was a "hostile environment. Food was scarce...I knew the road I was headed on would send me to my death or jail.
"Where did this new me come from?" he asks.
"Maturity," high school principal Jeff Johnson said. "You were ready to think of the next step."
"Last fall, I came in with my eyes closed," he recalls. "I had no idea what would happen. I didn't want to get my hopes up."
Alex credits the support of friend Tyler Barr and parents Mike and Kim, who took him into their home. "They gave me the kick start I needed. I had to toe the line. They showed me responsibility and discipline."
And his girlfriend and confidant Megan Larson "was my anchor," he said of the honor student who boosted his confidence with encouragement.
But he admits the times he was ready to throw in the towel outnumbered the times he was confident of the outcome.
When the last bell of the school day rang, Alex began homework and then headed to night school via the Headwaters Alternative Learning Program to gain the 10 additional credits.
Former high school principal Al "Judson wouldn't recognize me," Alex said of, the "lazy, obnoxious, low life failure and a class clown" that arrived sporadically for school last year.
This week, the senior was fitted with a cap and gown - "I was so excited when I got it" - and is on track to achieve B Honor Roll status for the second time this year. He has bumped up his GPA by a full point.
"Alex is not the only one to fall into this," Johnson said of students behind in credits and grades. "But Alex is the only second-year senior. Other kids have made up classes and graduated. But this is a fantastic thing. He pulled himself out."
"Thanks to Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Rassier, Mr. Cool and Ms. Westberg, Ms. Cassidy and Mr. Dravis," Alex said of the principal, counselor, social studies and math teachers, media center director and technology advisor, respectively.
"At random times," Johnson and Susan Rassier "kept me updated," he said of incidences of tardiness and class cutting. "They told me where to improve. They kept me steady."
"We told him this cannot happen unless you want to make the goal," Johnson said. "You know what you need to do. Don't let it slip out of your grasp."
Many students in this position would have been rankled by the prodding, Johnson said. "But Alex was always polite, respectful and said 'thank you.'"
"There were many times I was ready to throw in the towel," Alex admits. "Friends and their families kept me going."
A "driving force was to get a diploma and show it to my family, to prove to them I could," he said. "In some ways, I gave up on myself."
But now he's nearing the finish line.
"As a freshman, I thought I had a long time to do this. Every time I failed a class, I figured I had time. But every single class counts.
"Procrastination is the biggest key to failure," the insightful, eloquent senior has learned.
Plans call for two years of tech school in law enforcement then four years of college to become a detective, an aspiration he's held since the age of 6.
"My life basically took a 180. I'm happy; it couldn't be better. Now I have every opportunity. Now I'm the person I want to be."