It’s the way the story usually unfolds on the big screen or in books: the student works hard, finishes school and goes on to the beautiful college campus to study heady ideas.
“As cliché as it sounds, in movies and books it’s always that’s what you do: you go to school and high school and graduate and go to college. It’s what you do,” said 17-year-old Keylynn Belrose-Westfall, who graduates from Schenectady High School next week. “I only saw that in movies; I never saw people around me do that.”
In real life it’s rarely that simple. Life and family are more complicated than that.
“All throughout school that was always the goal: graduate and go to college,” she said Thursday, the day before her last Regents exam of high school – trigonometry, the last thing standing between her and an advanced Regents degree.
On track to graduate in only three years of high school, Keylynn will be the first in her family to go to college when she heads to Hobart and William Smith Colleges next month, leaving behind a fraught family history of mental illness and overdose to set her own life’s course potentially helping kids who face the same kinds of challenges she faced in her life.
Keylynn was born in Ballston Spa and moved around – living in Florida, Connecticut and Ogdensburg, New York, as a young girl – before landing in Schenectady in late elementary school.
Keylynn never met her dad, who has been out of the picture since before she was born; she grew up mostly with her mom and two half brothers. But her mom was a less-than-stabilizing force in her life, Keylynn said. She said her mom mistreated her and struggled with irrational views of things.
So when her half-brothers moved out, she was left alone with her mom.
During those two or three years with just her and her mom, Keylynn cared for herself, making sure she got to and from school on time, finished her classwork, and took care of the food and clothes part of life.
“There was nobody there to wake me up in the morning, there was no one there to say, ‘Hey, do you have homework?’” she said. “It was just all me making sure I needed to do what I needed to do.”
Early in middle school Keylynn had a hard time seeing the value of school; there was no one in her life to show it to her. She skipped school until a middle school teacher – Sarah Trombadore - sat Keylynn down and listened to her challenges and showed her that people – teachers and others at school – cared about her and her future.
“At that point I saw school as my way to get away from it all,” she said.
As a seventh grader, Keylynn had a chance to move into an advanced math class; she finished off a packet of work that encompassed the entire regular math curriculum in a week and moved onto the advanced level. That set her on track to graduate a year early.
She eventually moved away from her mom and in with her middle brother, who is now her legal guardian. Her brother works 12-hour overnight shifts at a Sysco warehouse; with inverted schedules they sometimes go weeks without seeing one another.
But she almost fell off the tracks last year after her oldest brother, then 22, died of a drug overdose. After his death last March, Keylynn struggled to find her way back to class. Her high school guidance counselor, Earl Barcombe, refused to give up on her, she said, pressing her to come back to class. She did, and despite a handful of incomplete classes last year, she caught back up.
“She doesn’t give up and just keeps pushing forward,” Barcombe said, highlighting Keylynn’s resilience as her major strength. “When there are setbacks in her life she is able to keep going forward.”
In college she plans to study child psychology, looking to eventually work with kids in schools or in private practice.
“I want to help kids who are going through what I have been through,” she said. “I just want to help kids who have been in my shoes.”
Keylynn said she wishes things were different with her mom – “I wish I could call my mom up and say, 'Hey I’m gradating and going off to college' and her say 'I’m happy for you,' but that wouldn’t happen.” She said her mom, who she hasn’t seen since her brother’s funeral last year, refuses to take care of herself - let alone her daughter.
But she also knows that as she studies psychology more closely, her views of her mother and their history together will be challenged and become even more complicated.
"Going through that makes me more able and more credible to help people because I have been through what they are going through," she said.