PORTLAND — Deering High School Principal Ken Kunin said Adrian Matos is a person who identifies his challenges and works to meet them head on.
For Matos, those challenges have been many and varied. Despite it all, however, Matos will graduate with honors from DHS, along with nearly 300 others, on June 3, at 10:30 a.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
When Matos came to the United States from Puerto Rico, he couldn’t
speak any English. The early part of his life was marked with
instability, living in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Virgina and eventually Maine. His mother struggled with alcohol addiction, causing Matos to be homeless for several months and a parent to his younger brother.
In the Bronx, Matos could largely get by without knowing
English. In Virginia, where he moved when he was in the fifth grade, it
was more difficult to exist without speaking the language. Matos admits it was more than a desire to excel in school that drove his desire to learn English.
“I wanted to talk to the girls, to be honest,” he said.
Matos came to Portland during his freshman year in high school. As a sophomore, he told Kunin he wanted to go to Harvard Law School. Kunin said he didn’t doubt Matos’ intelligence, but cautioned the ambitious youngster to pursue his dream in a more systematic way.
“I let him know that while I believed he had the intelligence, he did not possess the reading and writing skills necessary to make him competitive,” Kunin said. “Within a week, he had convinced an English teacher to take him on for an independent study in English.”
But Matos not only believes in hard work, but also in destiny.
“I feel that everything that has happened to me has been destined to be,” Matos said. “I believe in stars and making wishes.”
Throughout his career at Deering, Matos has been active in a variety of extracurricular activities – from football to drama to debate. He was voted “Mr. Deering” his junior year and has been a driving force in increasing the profile of the DHS Unity Project, an program offered in concert with the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence.
The 18-year-old speaks passionately about his work for the Unity Project, having felt discriminated against as a young Puerto Rican who dressed in a hip-hop style. Matos said he understands that bias comes from a variety of factors, from family history to religion, but there is one belief that he holds stronger.
“I also believe it only takes one voice to make a change in a community,” he said. “Eventually, you can reach the whole world.”
The Unity Project has helped create a more sensitive and welcoming school environment, he said, where thoughtless use of racial epithets is increasingly rare and students are more inclined to defend students who are being harassed by others.
“There are issues our community doesn’t understand about bias,” Matos said. “We can learn more about each other as people and human beings.”
Matos’ activism also led him to become active in the school’s Health Center Outreach Group. Last week, he organized an anti-tobacco event. Last year, the event focused on drunken driving, an issue on which Matos has first-hand experience, having lost an uncle to a drunk driver.
The health outreach group has also focused on suicide prevention, another personal issue for Matos, whose friend took his own life.
Despite his challenges, Matos will be attending the University of Maine next year, where he will study political science and minor in dance choreography. Matos, who plays the guitar, still wants to become a lawyer, but he also wants to open his own dance studio to teach everything from hip-hop to ballroom dancing.
“I put all the negative things in a bag and put it behind me and shot for the stars,” he said.
But Matos doesn’t plan on leaving his entire past behind him. He plans on continuing his advocacy at the school, if not for the entire student body, but for his younger brothers and sisters.
“One of my main focuses is not just doing this for me,” he said, “but to help set a standard in school and a path for when my brothers and sisters get over here, (so) they have something to actually look up to.”