Monica Calderon has led pep rallies and been instrumental in championing school spirit despite an unspeakable loss at home.
When Monica walks the Veterans Memorial Stadium stage during Pacheco High School's first-ever graduation tonight at 8, it will be one week short of the day she and her mom were involved in a vehicle crash in which only she walked away.
"It was right before senior year," the 18-year-old said. "I was so lost. It was so hard but everyone kept on telling me, 'Keep on going; keep on moving forward.' "
Around 6 a.m. June 14, the 2003 GMC carrying Monica and mother Alicia Calderon was northbound on Delta Road, a dirt roadway north of Henry Miller Road, at an unknown speed. For unknown reasons, the vehicle crashed into a utility pole on the east shoulder of Delta Road, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The GMC continued eastbound until it overturned into an irrigation canal on the east shoulder. Monica received minor injuries and her 47-year-old mother sustained fatal injuries, according to the CHP.
Education was important to Mom, said Monica. Her mother would be up every morning to make sure her youngest was ready for school.
"It's really hard losing someone that important at a young age," Monica said, adding she expected to have her mom around until she was in her 60s.
"They're like your superhero, and you don't expect that to happen," she said.
As rally commissioner, Monica was in charge of some of the unique traditions planned at tonight's ceremony, which includes a literal passing of a torch.
Monica said she wanted to begin a tradition that would motivate the next class to take pride in the school and bond as a family.
"I feel like we're all united in some way or form," Monica said. "A lot of people doubted this school at first, but look at what it's become."
Acting Principal Grace Taylor said Monica has set a positive and forward-thinking tone among her peers.
"She has fulfilled her role under the harshest circumstances," Taylor said.
During the ceremony, the current student body president, Claudia Garcia, and next year's president, Lorena Franco, will exchange the torch and recite a few words.
Lorena, a 17-year-old junior, said she's excited to be part of the graduation ceremony.
"It starts new traditions; it makes our own traditions," Franco said.
Monica perhaps has a unique perspective on bringing people together.
Monica said her father, two brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles were her support through her final year in high school.
She also said her classmates and Pacheco High staff always had encouraging words for her. Monica singled out science teacher Jennifer Brock for emotional support.
But, her main motivation remains the mother she lost too soon.
"It's all for her," Monica said. "I just hope, wherever she is, she's proud of me."
Monica said she's headed to California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, where she'll work on her general education and figure out a major.
She is one of more than 600 students expected to graduate this week in Los Banos.
Pacheco High School is expecting to graduate 289. Twenty-six honor graduates are among them, with 21 scholarships worth $39,750 to be awarded.
Students numbering 243 at Los Banos High School will graduate tonight at 8 in ceremonies at Loftin Stadium, 29 of them with honors. Forty-seven scholarships valued at $130,200 will be awarded.
Seventy-three students were set to graduate after presstime from San Luis Continuation High on Thursday at Loftin Stadium; 29 students of Crossroads Alternative Education Center were expected to graduate at the same time and place.
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Merced Sun-Star reporter Doane Yawger contributed to this story.