Everyone else was checking out children’s books with big type, but Yunuen Belmonte zeroed in on a biography of Einstein.
It was thick, the type was little, and page after page left her tired and confused.
But she was determined.
Several renewals later, Belmonte discovered that Einstein liked to jump against the wind when he was a child and had to leave his parents so he could study physics. Her friends discovered that the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” liked the sweet grass on the other side of the bridge.
That was four years ago, when Belmonte arrived in Modesto speaking only Spanish.
Now 18, Belmonte is a recent Downey High School graduate. She plans to attend Modesto Junior College in the fall and hopes to go from there to San Jose State University to study computer science.
She tackled Einstein’s biography as a freshman, reading it over and over again, with a Spanish-English dictionary at her side, until it started to make sense.
Soon after she finished it, Belmonte concluded that the sheltered-English classes — designed for students who do not speak English — were too easy.
Classmates who arrived without much schooling under their belts struggled to keep up. But Belmonte, who had been a top student in Mexico, felt like she was being kept behind.
“It was as if I was back in elementary school,” Belmonte said.
So, in 10th grade, Belmonte enrolled in regular math and science classes.
In 11th grade, she moved into regular English and social studies classes as well. She wanted to master the toughest courses, so she could go to college someday.
“She said, ‘I want to do it,'” said Patricia Hambric, her English as a second language teacher. “And we said ‘Are you sure?'”
Belmonte struggled. Hambric told her she could come back to sheltered classes. Belmonte would not hear of it.
By her junior year, she was earning A’s and B’s. She had to work harder than her peers and sometimes had no idea what the teacher was talking about.
Her friends called her a saint because she never wanted to hang out.
“They said I was so boring,” Belmonte said. “I said, ‘I will go out someday.'”
There were fun days, too. Belmonte got her driver’s license and got to take the family car to run errands. She went to the prom. She went on the senior class trip to Disneyland.
But she said no to soccer because it took hours she needed to finish her homework. She wanted to get a job so she could have nice clothes. Her father, a construction worker, said no.
Belmonte remembered his wise words: “After you graduate, you have all your time to work.”
The oldest of five children, she pushed forward. In May, Belmonte received a special award from the Modesto City Schools Board of Education for demonstrating “perseverance.”
Hambric said her star student succeeded because she had a good foundation — her education in Mexico and a lot of determination — to build on.
As Belmonte knows, the path of a newcomer is anything but easy. But success, she said, is not far away for those who work at it.
“Read in English. Write in English and make up conversations in their mind, even though they say it wrong like me,” Belmonte said. “And try their best. And don’t be afraid of new things.”