Oak Hills High School celebrated its first graduation ceremony Monday night under gloomy skies at the San Manuel Amphitheater, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the Class of 2011.
"Never again will an Oak Hills class have a graduation as unique as this, because we're creating new traditions tonight," ASB President Taylor Tang told the assembled crowd.
Of the 436 Bulldogs to receive their diplomas Monday night, Crystal Collins had been among the longest of long shots.
At 17, she had literally dodged bullets, survived a drug-crazed intruder and walked away from a fatal car accident to be there.
"If I was [back in her San Bernardino neighborhood], I'd probably be in a gang. There's lots of times I should have been dead," Collins said. "There were plenty of times where I wished things would be OK or we could just go away."
She saw a man get shot while she was still in elementary school. One night, a strange woman, out of her mind on drugs, leaped through the family's window and attempted to attack the Collins family, forcing the children to hide in the closet while neighbors subdued the woman.
Even years later, the violence and terror she felt in those days has left its mark on Collins.
"I want to be a SWAT officer when I grow up," she said. "I don't necessarily like fighting, but I'd like to do something productive. ... I want to help those kids who grew up with the violence like I did."
Everything changed -- both for the worse and the better -- when she was nine years old.
Her family had driven up to Washington for the Fourth of July weekend, and everything went wrong in a matter of days. On July 8, her father died of a heart attack. Driving back home to Southern California, a van packed with 13 family members rolled and flipped on the freeway.
"I didn't get one scratch," said Collins. "The only person who was really hurt was my mom."
Only days after losing her father to a heart attack, Collins' mother died of a head injury sustained in the accident.
Her mother's ashes were buried with her father's casket on July 18. It was also her Aunt Angela's birthday. Angela, her father's sister, took in the three new orphans, raising them alongside her own four in Hesperia.
"I felt I had to be tough. I felt I had to protect my younger brother and sister," said Collins. "I didn't realize until I was about 11 that was my aunt's job, that she was going to protect us."
She resisted the urge to give into anger over everything that had happened, partly to provide a good example for her brother and sister, but partly for a more practical reason: "It's not going to bring them back."
Instead, Collins threw herself into her life at school, playing varsity basketball and track, and was a member of the National Honor Society, the Link Crew, K9 Crew and Hip-Hop Club at school.
"Life is no joke. God is no joke, and neither is the Devil," Collins said. "The Devil is always busy."
The hard work paid off: She'll be attending California State University, Dominguez Hills, in the fall.
"From them dying, I get to go to college for free" as a ward of the state, she said.
Despite facing more tragedy than most of the Class of 2011 will have faced so far in their young lives, Collins says her hardships won't define her.
"God kept me around," she said. "There's people with situations worse than you."
Monday night, Collins added a happy milestone to the sad ones she had marked much earlier than most of her classmates, one of a sea of red-clad Bulldogs under stormy skies in Devore.
"Not too long ago, we were on 85 acres out there" on the new campus, Principal Larry Porras told the assembled crowd. "We transformed it into a vibrant campus that produces wonderful young people."
Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 760-956-7108 or at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.