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Cassania Gilson: ‘Tell failure that it’s your time to shine’

It took a while for Cassania Gilson to feel comfortable speaking at her new school.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It took a while for Cassania Gilson to feel comfortable speaking at her new school.

Every student at Boston International High School is a new immigrant. All at once, they must become adults and become Americans. Their teachers impart lessons in tenacity. They learn courage by example, from each other. Meet Cassania Gilson and Leonal Peguero, two graduating seniors from a school where roaring rounds of applause are the norm. Both face incredible odds as they depart.

Cassania Gilson started avoiding questions about college this spring, her senior year. Tony King, academic director at Boston International High School in Dorchester, had found gentle ways to ask about her options, but Cassania responded with excuses to leave his office.

It wasn’t like her, King said. He worried over her future.

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Cassania saw only one path to college: a full scholarship. So that’s what she tried for. Her mother works at a supermarket. They have no savings. Most important, Cassania is not eligible to apply for federal student aid because of her immigration status.

She left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and remains here under Temporary Protected Status, offered in 18-month increments to non-citizens who cannot safely return to their home countries.

When the ground began rolling beneath her in Port-au-Prince, Cassania was at home enjoying a telenovela. She’d just finished a game of basketball with friends, and her grandmother was aerating her school uniform in the dining room. Cassania got up and ran.

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She had to make it through a long, open hallway to reach her grandmother, who was shouting for Jesus. As she ran toward her grandmother’s voice, she looked into her neighbor’s house and saw a baby girl there, suspended in air. Then the baby fell straight down. The house followed. Cassania screamed.

They made it out together, but Cassania said she was rendered mute, unable to eat or drink for three days. She could only cry for the baby. Her grandmother purchased a little tent and bed for them to share. For the next three months, they bore the stench of corpses together; awaited news from family together.

Then in April, Cassania’s mother called from Boston with news. Cassania could come to the US on her existing visa.

Cassania and her grandmother said goodbye at the airport in Port-au-Prince. She was one week shy of her 14th birthday. She waited until she was on the airplane to cry for her grandmother.

The following fall Cassania enrolled at Boston International, where every freshman is an English-language learner. At first she was too shy to speak to her multilingual peers, but then she discovered that she was able to learn both English and Spanish at once.

“She has a tremendous facility for languages,” said Celoni Espinola, her ninth-grade English teacher. Before long, Cassania was fluent in four languages. (She already spoke French and Haitian Creole.)

That November, Espinola presented his students with a choice: They could act out a Thanksgiving play in their classroom, or they could perform it before the entire school. His students were adamant; they wanted everyone to see their play. But Cassania didn’t take a speaking part.

Espinola brought in bolts of fabric from home to produce pilgrim costumes. Cassania made props out of leaves and paper. She learned how to set the stage. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, students filled all 238 seats in the auditorium. Others were standing in the back or on the sides.

“There were so many people,” remembers Cassania, “my stomach was boiling.” Her job was to open and close the curtains between acts. Because the stage had no wings, the audience would be able to see her do it.

“When I got up there, I didn’t look out. The trick is to not look at anybody. That’s what Mr. King told me.”

But there on the edge of the stage, she felt something change inside of her.

“I was getting more confident. I was looking at my teachers and my friends, and then I was just going.”

After that day, she took any opportunity to speak. She became a young ambassador for her school, greeting visitors and new students. She ran for student body treasurer. She addressed the School Committee.King took her to speak to prospective teachers at the Harvard School of Education.

In her junior year she wrote a story about wooden shoes that her grandfather, a comedian, wore on stage in Haiti. He’d given her the shoes as a birthday gift, but she lost them when she moved. She read the story out loud at a TEDx event.

“I love to give people cheer,” Cassania said.

When it came time to apply for college, she set aside what she knew about her immigration status and wrote the best college applications she could. She turned the story of the wooden shoes into her admissions essay.

In March, her acceptance letters started arriving: first Assumption College, then Suffolk and Stonehill, then UMass, Regis College, and Bridgewater. There were no full scholarships.

Every year Tim Likosky, guidance counselor at Boston International, has students who can’t go to college because of their immigration status. This year, he said, Cassania is one of four.

“When it gets close to graduation — maybe April or May — they start to break down,” Likosky said. “They start to see the reality of the situation when other students in their class, who might not be at their level, are going on to four-year colleges.”

Next fall, Cassania plans to get a job and take classes where she can afford it. She has not given up on her dream of living on a college campus.

At her school’s annual “passing of the torch” ceremony this month, Cassania stood to address her classmates one last time. She’d typed out her speech.

“Do not be afraid to fail because failure is where you learn the most,” she told them. “Try again. Tell failure that it’s your time to shine, and that you’re here to stay.”

She asked her classmates to applaud their courage. With gusto, they did. And when she finished speaking they returned the applause, in equal volume, for her.

Alexa Mills can be reached at mills.alexa@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexatimeaus
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