Posted on Tue, May. 07, 2002 Editorialsstory:PUB_DESC
TOP NOTCH: Miguel Arguelles arrived from Cuba seven years ago.
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TOP NOTCH: Miguel Arguelles arrived from Cuba seven years ago.


Miguel Arguelles knew he would be getting the e-mail that day.

When the 2:30 p.m. school bell rang, he rushed home to his computer.

And there it was: His acceptance into Harvard.

The scared, confused, homesick boy who sat in a Hialeah classroom seven years ago not understanding a word his new teacher said, the boy embarrassed at the thick accent that came from his lips when he uttered a simple word like ''chair,'' had made it into ``the best school in America.''

''My dreams had come true,'' the 17-year-old says.

He stared at the e-mail for three minutes, reading over the lines about how few students make it this far.

Then he cried.

Meet Miguel Angel Arguelles, the extraordinary valedictorian of Miami Lake's Barbara Goleman Senior High School, Class of 2002: He has a weighted grade point average of 5.6, he's the Sunshine State 2002 District Scholar, a top student in calculus, physics and advanced placement English classes, the first student in Goleman's seven-year history to be admitted to Harvard.

And yes, as the students here say, he's ``a Cuban ref.''

Miguel came to Miami from Cuba with his mother and father and younger brother in February 1995. He was 10 years old.

He didn't risk his life on the high seas -- his paternal grandfather obtained visas for the family and they flew here -- but abandoning Cuba carried all the emotional weight of leaving his home, his loved ones, ''and my childhood'' behind.

His first year of exile was equally painful.

His parents, Havana professionals who studied in the Soviet Union's Kiev, had to take factory jobs. His father Angel, a civil engineer, worked two jobs. His mother, María Teresa, a science teacher with a master's degree in biochemistry, worked cutting elastic at a sewing factory and studied English at night.

For four months, the family lived in the gymnasium where Angel worked his second job, sleeping on the floor on mattresses while they saved enough money to rent an apartment. Then, the only apartment they could afford was so small that the boys' ''room'' was the size of a closet. They propped up bunk beds.


In school, Miguel, who was accustomed to getting top grades in Cuba, was struggling with the language -- and even with math, his favorite subject.

Pronunciation was the most difficult thing to master.

''Beach is the hardest word in the world,'' he says.

An ace in mathematics in Cuba and now -- ''Math is my baby,'' he says -- his teacher ''didn't like'' the way Miguel showed his work doing fractions. In Latin countries, the method of division taught is different from that of the United States. (The division bracket is upside down and the order of the numbers is reversed.) Miguel could come up with the right answer, but his calculations were not done ``the American way.''

His father went to school to talk to the principal to get him out of that class.

But the principal said, ''Miguel can make it.'' And his father left him there.

He survived that year by using the same means he used to get to Harvard.

''I put everything I had into learning. I set out to pursue my dream. My parents had sacrificed their lives for me, so that I could live in this country in freedom and have a future. They were working in jobs as if they had never gone to school,'' Miguel says. ``I was just doing what I was supposed to do. I made it with As and Bs.''

He figured out the math part with practice (even though now, he confesses, he still counts in Spanish ``deep inside''). He gained fluency in English watching television after school -- and ``reading lots and lots of books.''

''The interaction in school is very limited,'' he says. ``When you have your own TV, you have your own teacher talking to you.''

As Miguel prospered in school, his parents prospered in their jobs.


His mother's late-night studies paid off. She became a teacher again. She now teaches English-For-Students-of-Other Languages (ESOL) at Miami Lakes Middle School and is working on her master's in education at Nova Southeastern University. His father landed a well-paid supervisory job in a construction company.

From the tiny apartment, the Arguelles graduated to a two-bedroom one, and last year, they bought a house in a new development in Royal Oaks in Miami Lakes. Miguel has a room of his own and a laptop.

Last year, his junior year, was the most intense. He was taking six college-level classes. He studied from 3 p.m. to 2 or 3 a.m. He took his books to the park.

''No naps, no sleep, little food, an occasional shower,'' he says.

'I had to pry him from the computer and the books and say, `No, ya, you are going to bed,' '' his mother says.

She remembers the day he shared his dream.

'We had just set foot in this country, and he said to me, `Mami, I'm going to Harvard.' I remember it as if it had happened today. He fought, fought and fought for what we wanted.''

His dream will cost plenty. The University of Miami offered a full scholarship. It was tempting to accept because Harvard is expensive -- $36,000 a year. He'll get about half that amount in scholarships and aid, his mother said, but the rest has to come from Miguel and his family.

''Somehow we'll have to manage it,'' María Teresa says.

In his college essays, when he is asked to explain who he is, Miguel quotes James Joyce, Napoleon Bonaparte and compares his own journey from a beloved but wretched homeland to the hopeful, new life in the United States to that of mythological characters.

Of Cuba, he says: ``Its memory is tattooed deep in my heart.''

He calls the United States his ''garden,'' his ``Eden.''

From hall monitors to teachers and counselors, everyone finds Miguel remarkable.

He has picked up the street lingo of his generation with the same ease that he has absorbed the intricacies of philosophical works like Toni Morrison's Son of Solomon or James Joyce's A Portrait of The Artist As a Young Man.


''He's got such an insight into the English language that it blows me away. He understands the nuances of language,'' says Linda Galati, his college advisor.

''Out of all the students I've encountered in my entire teaching career, Miguel ranks as one of my top two students,'' says his English teacher, Nell Miller, who has taught in Miami-Dade schools for 22 years.

Miguel wants to be a neurosurgeon -- ''I love the human body and the human mind,'' he says -- but there's more to his life than school work. Salsa dancing is his passion and he recently sang and performed in a bilingual school production of Fame.

''He gets straight A's and then you see him at a party, and he's the life of the party,'' says friend Jorge García, 17.

''He goes out with us. He goes to the park, plays basketball, tennis. He has fun,'' says friend Albert Araluce, 17.

His 16-year-old brother Alejandro, also a college-bound A-student, admires him.

''He's got a life,'' Alejandro says. ``He's not like a nerd who studies all the time and only does that.''

There's little sibling rivalry, the boys say. ''Only the usual kid stuff,'' says Alejandro, who wants to go to the University of Florida.

''He's doing what makes him happy, following his own dreams and that is my definition of success,'' Miguel says of his brother.


And indeed, the Arguelles boys are part of a tight-knit, high-performing group of Goleman High students who have one thing in common: They came from Cuba in the mid-'90s.

The school draws its students from Hialeah Gardens, Miami Lakes and Palm Springs North, a working and professional-class suburbia with pockets of upscale living and pockets of struggling immigrants. In a school that is 90 percent Hispanic, the typical name-calling of youth, sometimes harmless horseplay, sometimes plain prejudice, is characterized not by race but by country of origin.

The Central and Latin American kids are called tira flechas, arrow throwers, or indios, Indian, for their indigenous features. The recent Cuban arrivals are called balseros, rafters, or ''Cuban refs.'' (A ''ref,'' short for refugee, is determined by how pronounced the accent and the year of arrival from Cuba.)

When a visitor asks a group of kids about the valedictorian, a student says: ``Oh, yeah, Miguel, the Cuban ref.''

Miguel simply shrugs.

As he walks the Goleman hallways in these, his last days as a senior, he hears other names.

''Hey Harvey,'' a boy high-fives Miguel. 'Goin' ta Ha-w-vard.''

''That's my nickname now, Harvey, Harvard, and all sorts of variations there of,'' Miguel says, blushing a little.

There's a tinge of pride in his voice, but not a shred of arrogance.

That, teachers and friends say, sets Miguel apart from the traditional crowd of cocky overachievers.

''Miguel remembers his roots,'' says his geography teacher Richard Stamper. ``He remembers sitting in that class in sixth grade and not understanding anything. I tell him that when he's at Harvard surrounded by all those people who are just as smart, if not smarter than he is, that is the one thing that will keep him grounded.''

Says Miguel: ``How could I forget?''