Daisy Perez says her mom will never know how close she came to dropping out of high school. Math and English were a struggle, and so was U.S. History. Then came Civics. Perez worked for hours on her homework and earned all A’s. But the tests were impossible to understand, and she got D’s and F’s. She tried nearly everything to improve; she trained herself with flashcards, read books and wrote extra papers. In spite of her efforts, her teachers told her she was in danger of failing the class.
Perez was terrified. She decided she would rather drop out of high school and join the military than risk not graduating with her peers. “My mindset was if I didn't pass, I’d join the Army, and after that I’d get my GI Bill and then I would start my college classes,” she recalls.
Then, a month into her senior year this fall, Puente staff connected Perez with Pat Watson. Watson is a longtime Puente volunteer who has years of experience as a K-12 tutor, as well as an aide and a special education teacher in the Menlo Park City School District. Perez has worked successfully with two other tutors as well, who helped her pass Math and U.S. History. Both tutors were supplied by Puente.
Watson will never forget their first meeting. Perez, chatty, bubbly and poised, arrived with an organized work plan. She was absolutely determined to pass Civics, Watson says. “We just clicked. Because of her confidence in asking for what she needed and awareness of her strengths and weaknesses, I did not have to be shy about correcting her, challenging her, and encouraging her.”
By the end of the evening, Perez was already asking whether Watson, who lives in San Jose, could come back to Puente the next day to work with her some more. It was an hour and a half drive for Watson – each way. “How could I say no?” she says today.
Thus began the closest mentor-student collaboration either woman has experienced. Watson made the trek to Pescadero two nights a week. Perez’s grades improved, and so did her confidence. Then she took on a daunting topic for her senior project in Civics, a presentation on powerful women in history. She needed even more support, and Watson was there.
“Thank goodness for Google Docs, because the few little rainstorms we had prohibited me from driving over the hill and up the coast to meet with her in person. We once spent six hours editing back and forth to get a draft in by the end of the day,” Watson says.
Watson didn’t just tutor Perez; she worked closely with Perez’s Civics teacher to get her ready for exams. Even when Perez was struggling, they laughed together and talked about college – about who she could be as a college graduate, what kind of career she would enjoy.
“She was kind. She was welcoming. She was always honest. She always encourages me, and that’s what I like,” says Perez. “Having that type of relationship makes me feel better about myself.”
The high point of their work together was the senior project. It was, by far, the most challenging thing Perez has ever done. She enjoyed researching the lives of female heroes like labor leader Dolores Huerta and aviator Bessie Coleman. She got stage fright during her 30-minute presentation and even cried a little. But she got through it by channeling the most powerful woman in her life – her mother, Irma Rodriguez.
“I’ve been raised by a single mother my whole life. Everything that I was taught was by my mom. For me to show that women are capable of raising their kids, having two jobs, going to school, and still having time for themselves – it’s really challenging. My mom did all that,” she says.
Perez is now 18 and on track for graduation in June. She'll be the first in her family to go to college. For years, she’s worked just like her mother – doing office work at Puente, working as a camp counselor at YMCA Camp Jones Gulch, and bussing dishes at Duarte’s Tavern. Since Perez was born in Mexico, she will not have access to many of the same college grants and scholarships that U.S.-born students take for granted. Everything has been just a little more challenging.
Watson and her wife Michelle are proud members of the San Mateo-based Peninsula Metropolitan Community Church, a congregation primarily comprised of LGBTQ people. Michelle is on the Board of Directors for the church and Watson co-founded a group called the Church Ladies, a high-spirited group that helps keep the church in beautiful working order and promotes sociability.
The Peninsula MCC and its founding pastor, Rev. Terri Echelbarger, have a longstanding and close relationship with Puente. That’s how Watson first heard about Puente. Today she loves volunteering at Puente events like Día de los Niños and the annual Christmas Posada, as well as with packing and distributing school supplies and Christmas gifts to local children. Her experience with Perez has inspired her to continue tutoring young people in Pescadero, which will make a huge difference in the lives of some very lucky students.
But that doesn’t mean that Watson’s relationship with Perez is coming to a close. In fact, it’s just beginning. In March, the women toured some local community colleges together in Watson’s car. Perez thought she would like Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, but something didn’t fit. On a bit of a whim, they decided to drive to Mission College in Santa Clara. As soon as they parked, it felt right. Perez fell in love with the course curriculum and the campus itself. She took note of the built-in tutoring program at the school, coincidentally also called Puente. Walking back to the car, Perez remarked, “This is what it feels like when someone asks you to marry them. I said YES!” Later, over a lunch of salads and cheeseburgers, they toasted her “engagement.”
“She said yes to her future, to her commitment to education, to herself and her goals. It was a precious moment,” Watson recalls. Best of all, Mission College is much closer to San Jose, so Perez and Watson can visit each other with less formality.
“I’m excited for her to meet me after class. Now she doesn’t have to commute to me. I can commute to her,” says Perez, adding: “I think she’d be the right type of person to tell me what type of ringed binder I should get.”
Perez may get a head start at Cañada College in Redwood City and then transfer to Mission College – she’s not sure yet. Her busy summer will also include driving lessons. She’s going to get her license.
Watson says that as student and mentor, she has always believed she and Perez are a “match made in heaven.” Now they have become friends as well.
“I have a feeling Daisy and I are only at the beginning of the process. From here on she will be challenged more than ever in her life and she can’t wait. Neither can I.”