Redemption song: South Whidbey Academy speaker made extra year count

The South Whidbey Academy class of 2014, from left: Erika Campbell, Christoph Clare, Jessica Strempel, Cameron Beck, Cassie Marcial, Kendall Jones and Dustin McLean.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
The South Whidbey Academy class of 2014, from left: Erika Campbell, Christoph Clare, Jessica Strempel, Cameron Beck, Cassie Marcial, Kendall Jones and Dustin McLean.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Going back to school was totally worth it for Cassie Marcial.

She will stride across the stage at the old primary school's gym on Thursday, step to the lectern and address her South Whidbey Academy peers, teachers, friends and family as the class speaker. The most important thing for Marcial, 19, will be the look on her father’s face — the same look he had years ago when her sister, Crystal, graduated and was the first person in their immediate family to graduate from high school in the United States of America.

“I have never seen that look on my dad’s face,” she said of her father, Manuel Marcial. “I can’t wait for Thursday. I hope I get that look.”

The week before, during a shift at their family-owned Bayview restaurant, El Corral, her father stepped out from the kitchen for a family photo. It did not take long for tears to well and fall from his face as he was overcome with emotion. His daughter went from considering getting her GED [graduation equivalency diploma] to being nominated by South Whidbey Academy staff as the class speaker.

“They worked hard enough, the least I can do is give them a diploma,” Cassie said. 

Having grown up on South Whidbey, she dropped out of high school during her freshman year after she had several seizures during class. She continued her education with home schooling, but two years passed before she was diagnosed with epilepsy, and in the meantime she had to be taken to a hospital in an ambulance eight times. The neurological disorder became so bad that when she was 17, the hospital staff stopped counting after she had her 106th seizure in a single day. Since that day, she has worn a silver ring on her left ring finger — a reminder of her family’s faith in her and hers in her family.

Seizing up at school as a teenage girl was tough on Marcial. She became self-conscious about what classmates thought of her, and she felt that the risks of having epilepsy were too great for her to attend. As a sophomore, she was two quarters behind her cohort and started homeschooling with the intent of getting her GED. That was until her niece graduated from the South End’s alternative school last year. Listening to the students’ stories from their mentors inspired her to return to school. If they graduated, if they did homework assignments and a portfolio presentation, then so could she.

Yet for all the training of working with people she received while employed at her parents’ restaurant, day one was filled with anxiety for Marcial. After all, she had not been a classroom student since she was 14 and, as she says, “my friends were my customers.”

“When I wasn’t doing school, I was at work,” she said.

A peer calmed those fears when he sat next to her in their first class of the year and said a simple “Hey.” That was all she needed to settle in, and since then she has gone on to find comfort in the relationships with her classmates, teachers and staff.

These days, students walk by and she says, “Hey,” like when a friend pops into the main office area, holding her bleeding finger, during an interview with The Record.

“You should not be in art,” Marcial tells the girl, with both of them laughing.

“I needed it more than I realized at the time,” she added. “We’re not even friends anymore. We’ve become family.”

That family extends beyond just the students. Few people in the halls of South Whidbey Academy know her quite like Deann Houck, the school’s secretary.

“She’s approachable, she’s accepting. She’s one of those people who you think, ‘I can be friends with her for a long, long time,’ ”Houck said.

For how much she considers people at school her second family, her father, mother, sisters and nieces are her strongest supporters. On the day of June 5, South Whidbey residents will have to look elsewhere for their Mexican cuisine. El Corral will be closed for the day while the Marcials celebrate their youngest child’s graduation.


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