ARLINGTON — He didn’t deliver just one graduation speech.
He did two — the first in January, the second a week ago.
Not bad for a guy whose grades going into his senior year were south of a C average.
Dylan Beakley is grateful for second chances, timely advice and those who had faith in him when he did not.
He could have become one of the roughly 9,400 Washington students who drop out of high school between their freshman and senior years.
Sometimes he was distracted, sometimes depressed, at times reckless and certainly overwhelmed. He attended four high schools and spent another six months as a cadet at the Washington Youth Academy. Perhaps his most important lessons weren’t academic, but about building resolve.
“I want people to understand that no matter where you came from, you can always make a change,” he said.
That idea led him back to Marysville Middle School a week ago, two days after he graduated from Weston High School in Arlington. Beakley and Nathan Weier, a fellow Youth Academy and Weston graduate, met with two students who reminded them of themselves six years earlier.
Beakley and Weier explained to the boys that people doubted they would ever graduate. They described where the boys were likely to mess up in life and how they need to push through it. Then they brought out their diplomas and told them this is worth fighting for.
“They are good kids,” Beakley said afterward. “They are just lost. I was lost, too.”
She always treated him with kindness when they were in middle school.
Their friendship was platonic. He never had the nerve to tell her how he really felt.
They went their separate ways for high school: he east up the hill to Marysville Getchell; she north to Marysville Pilchuck.
Her bus would stop at Getchell on the way to Pilchuck. He would sometimes catch up with her in those fleeting moments.
The day he learned about the fatal shootings in the Pilchuck cafeteria, Beakley texted his friend to see if she was okay.
That afternoon he learned that Gia Soriano was among the victims.
He remembers the shooter, too. They had wrestled in middle school.
Nothing made sense.
Like many Marysville students, he felt in a fog, not for days but for weeks and months. He often thought of Gia. He didn’t go to school for more than a week. When he did return, it was as though he wasn’t there at all.
He failed classes and didn’t care.
The one thing that kept him going was basketball. He made the freshman squad after having been cut in middle school. He was neither a starter nor a star, but it felt good to be part of the team.
By the end of the school year, Beakley knew he needed a change.
He transferred to Marysville Pilchuck. There were times he could have sworn he saw Gia on campus, and then he would seek out a counselor.
He was glad to make the C basketball team and to be a Tomahawk, but his grades needed monitoring to determine if he would be eligible for games. After the season, they slid.
His family moved to Arlington. He once again would start anew.
By then, he said he was drinking, smoking weed and staying out late.
He tried out for the Arlington High School team his junior year. He remembers telling his father, “It’s the only thing that keeps me from doing stupid crap, Dad.”
Beakley was the last player on the end of the bench for the junior varsity. Many games he wouldn’t play. None of that mattered. He was just proud to wear a capital A on his chest.
As had become his pattern, his grades took a nosedive after the season.
A counselor called him in. It was time for a talk.
Cherry on the sundae
As Beakley remembers it, the counselor explained how far behind in credits he’d fallen, handed him a brochure and said something to the effect of “You should consider this.”
The first thing he saw was that he could earn eight credits. That was enticing.
Then again, it was the Bremerton-based Washington Youth Academy, and that would require commitment, conformity and separation from friends and family.
In promotional material, the academy writes that its mission is to provide a disciplined, safe and professional learning environment where at-risk youth can improve their educational levels and employment potential and become responsible and productive. Part of that goal is to provide “life and job skills training that will change their lives and give them hope and opportunity.”
Beakley wasn’t thinking about life changes. He just wanted the credits.
“On orientation day, I get there and I see all these guys in military uniforms and I’m like ‘Oh, what did I sign up for?’ ”
During a gruelling workout, he thought to himself: “I can’t do it.”
It was dizzying, a blur of sergeants barking orders and pushups and burpies. Beakley was drenched in sweat. He threw up his sausage McMuffin breakfast in a trash can.
As some candidates were sent home, he felt conflicted. He told himself: “This sucks. I need to get in.”
His strategy was to be a private beneath the radar, “to keep the lowest rank and just get it over with.”
He failed miserably at mediocrity.
He began to care.
Darrell Stoops, a 1st lieutenant at the academy, is what’s known as cadre supervisor for the 1st Platoon Wolfpack. Before joining the academy in 2009, he served in the Air Force for 20 years. He has seen hundreds of teens come and go. In Beakley, he witnessed a transformation.
“There are a lot of ways he showed positive growth but one of the most significant ways was he went from being someone more worried about himself to becoming a servant leader,” Stoops said.
Beakley rose to Cadet 1st Sergeant, the second highest rank in the academy.
“It was largely because he wanted to take care of the entire company,” Stoops said. “He genuinely cared about the welfare of his fellow cadets and did his best to make decisions that had the best outcome for all involved… He gained the confidence to make decisions without having to get validation from others and resilience to handle stressful situations without losing his composure.”
In a blue gown, Beakley — who at the academy went by Bullock, the last name he was born with — gave a four-minute speech with 140 other cadet graduates seated behind him. He talked about Gia and grief, venturing down life’s dark paths and the fact that he had not just hurt himself, he had hurt his family.
The reason he’d come to the academy had become secondary to the experience.
“Credits are just the cherry on top of the sundae,” he said.
Race to the end
Beakley returned to Arlington High School. Basketball season had started. He wasn’t on the team.
He transferred to Weston High School in February. He figured he could take some online classes and work full time in construction.
It was a classic miscalculation of ambition and reality.
In April, Weston teacher Kailyn Otto told Beakley he wouldn’t be graduating because he was too far behind.
He quit his job and enrolled in both traditional and online classes, nine in all, including three history courses.
“He basically wanted to prove me wrong,” Otto said. “I was happy about that.”
Beakley decided he would show up and do his work, but there would be no time for making friends and being social.
Once again, his game plan failed.
“He was the light of this school,” Otto said. “He’s that kind of kid. He can get along with everyone.”
The unlikely graduate was chosen to give a commencement speech. His words touched students, staff and families.
“I think everyone had tears in their eyes,” Otto said.
For now, Beakley is washing dishes at a Denny’s. He’s eager to report to U.S. Navy boot camp in August.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.