By his own admission, Adan Peña was a lousy student. Lazy. Apathetic. A typical junior high loser.
Call it a family tradition. Of his 19 aunts and uncles, only two have received a high school diploma, and Adan was on his way of slacking out of Nazareth High School and into a life of who knows what — at best, working on a dairy farm. At worst, jail.
“In junior high, I was one of those kids who teachers hated,” said Peña, now a senior. “I didn’t care about school. I put forth little or no effort. I was always looking for trouble.”
It was easy to find. Wanna-be gangsters from surrounding towns. Tobacco. Alcohol. Drugs. Just another troubled Hispanic kid going nowhere.
His freshman year in high school was even worse.
“My grades were at an all-time low,” he said. “I was on the brink of flunking out, of going down the same path as almost all of my family members. Quit. Struggle. Live the rest of my life doing hard work for little or no money. I figured that’s where I was headed anyway, so why fight it.”
But his sophomore English teacher, Cindy Huseman, saw something in him that others didn’t. Adan had all kinds of problems, but he was smart and articulate when he wanted to be. When Adan’s grandmother died, his cousins were asked to speak at the funeral. None volunteered, so he stepped up.
“I spent five hours writing the speech,” he said. “The night I wrote it, I had a feeling, for the first time, that I was ‘good’ at something other than being lazy.”
The day after the funeral, Huseman — who had attended the service — encouraged Adan to join the UIL speech team.
“No way,” he said. “Me? In speech?” He told himself the same old thing: “You’re like the rest of your family: not good enough. Never was. Never will be.”
But Huseman persisted. Join the extemporaneous speaking team. Give it a shot. If you don’t like it, if it’s too hard, if it’s not for you, then move on. But don’t fail before you even try. Don’t be a coward.
OK, he relented. Where do I sign up?
“I wasn’t very good as a sophomore,” Adan said. “I was competing in informative and persuasive speaking, and I was losing, but I realized that it wasn’t because my opponents were smarter than me. They worked harder. They were better prepared, and that made them more confident.”
After finishing fourth at the 2009 district meet, he considered quitting. He’d proven to himself what he’d always believed: You aren’t good enough. You’re a failure. Why bother trying? The day before he planned to quit the team, Adan’s mother pulled him aside and told him how proud she was of him, that he was changing the family, that he was living the dreams she wished she could have lived.
Inspired by the support of his mother and his coaches, Adan worked harder. He read newspapers, gorged on political and current events websites, attended speech workshops and clinics. From the first day of school, he gave three speeches per week. He practically lived Huseman’s classroom.
Though it was a huge expense for the family, Adan’s mother spent more than $200 for his tournament outfit.
“I will make it to state this year,” he vowed. “I will make it to state.”
Last spring, Adan Peña — the junior high loser — placed second in persuasive speaking at district, first at region and third at the UIL Academic State Meet, held the first weekend of May on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
“UIL academics have changed my life entirely,” he said. “I apply the things I learned in speech to my everyday life, especially the relationship between work and practice and success. I went from a lost student who did not care about school or his future and have become an A-student. If I had never joined the speech team, I doubt I would have ever seen this change.”
When UIL officials draped the third place medal around his neck, he stood on the stage of the Lyndon B. Johnson Auditorium on the UT campus and thought, for the first time in his life, “I am somebody, and I can become anyone or anything I want to be if I’m willing to work hard enough.”
In May of 2015 of thereabouts, he hopes to take another stroll across the UT campus — this time, with a university diploma in his hand.