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Coming out of the darkness
Valedictorian shares loss with fellow graduates

By Georgia East | December 18,2009 | sun-sentinel.com


LAUDERHILL - "Persistence does make the impossible possible,'' Seaira Montgomery, class valedictorian, told her fellow graduates Thursday night.

At Lauderhill High School, Montgomery, 20, is a shining star. She earned the highest grade point average in her class of 30 at the alternative school. Her plan is to attend a four-year university and pursue a degree in nursing.

But what many didn't know until Thursday was that Montgomery lost a 2-year-old son when he wandered into an unfenced pool and drowned in March 2008.

Then 18, Montgomery was a month away from giving birth to her daughter Ja'nari. She was out running an errand with her grandmother when tragedy struck. At the time, her son, J'Mari Johnson, had been left in the care of his father and another relative.

For months, Montgomery fell into a deep, dark space.

"I tried to go back to school, but I couldn't focus,'' she said. "I would be in class not doing any work. I just kept thinking: I just buried my son.''

"Losing my 2-year-old son was truly my most difficult experience,'' she said in her valedictory speech. "Without love and support I wouldn't be here.''

Sitting in the middle of the auditorium was Montgomery's grandmother, Shirley Harold, tears streaming down her face.

"This is just such a transformation,'' said Harold. "I tell all of my grandchildren education is the key.''

After J'Mari died, Harold refused to let her granddaughter wallow in darkness. Harold helped raise Montgomery since she was a baby, as well as four other siblings.

Over the years, Harold and Montgomery struggled with tight finances and school problems. But J'Mari's drowning filled them with piercing pain.

It also brought them even closer.

After the tragedy, Montgomery would go for days without speaking to anyone. Harold would sit on the edge of her granddaughter's bed and try to comfort her, hoping that just being there would help.

"I didn't know what to say sometimes,'' Harold said. "At times I had to let her take the lead.''

Montgomery said that thanks to counseling, strong spiritual faith, and her grandmother's support, she made it through.

In April, after going to four different schools in four years, she looked into the big brown eyes of her 1-year-old daughter, Ja' nari, who bears a striking resemblance to her son, and realized it was time for a change.

"I figured I could drop out like some of my friends and end up with four or five kids, or I could do better,'' she said. "I wanted better for myself and my daughter.''

At Lauderhill High School, she got the chance with encouragement from the staff.

"I think talking to her and assuring her that she's so awesome and just so smart helped,'' said senior adviser Althea Lewis. "She had been through so much that she just probably didn't believe that she could do it.''

Montgomery now has her sights set on the medical field because she wants to help others. She is waiting to hear if she has been accepted at Florida Atlantic University.

The smile on her face says she can handle whatever the future brings.

"Work hard and success shall be yours,'' she told her fellow graduates.