By Daniel Johnson-Kim, Editor in Chief
A clump of boys weighed down by football pads and helmets clash into each other as the sun sets one fall afternoon at Arthur Sears Park.
During Mighty Might Eagles’ practice, 8-year-old Angel Guitierrez focuses on his responsibilities: beating his blocker and sacking the quarterback.
Seated in an olive green camping chair a few yards off the practice field, his mother focuses on hers: watching her son and reading 20 pages for her morning class.
“Whenever the weather is nice, I just sit out there on my camping chair,” said 26-year-old Lezlee Guitierrez, sophomore advertising/public relations major from Abilene. “I usually just read, but half of the time I’m watching him, so it is kinda hard to concentrate.”
While Lezlee finds time for her homework during football practice, April Guitierrez, no relation, reads for her classes while opening jars of Gerber baby food and wiping her 11-month-old son Elijah’s drool-filled face.
“To calm him down when I’m reading a textbook, I’ll read to him,” said April, junior accounting major from El Paso. “He’s learned a lot about business.”
Several students at ACU study full time while raising a child at home. Rather than worrying about only grades, notes and assignments, students like Lezlee and April balance their time with the challenges of motherhood.
Both would like to focus all of their attention on their schooling, but Elijah needs to be changed and Angel has practice.
They are mothers first, students second.
The summer after graduating from Abilene High School in 2000, Lezlee discovered she was pregnant with Angel.
The news was hard; the decision to keep the baby was not.
“My mom suggested getting an abortion,” said Lezlee, who was 18 when she got pregnant. “I was like, ‘Forget about that.’ I just felt like it wasn’t her responsibility; it’s mine, so she didn’t have any say in it anyways.”
Marrying Angel’s father was not an option. He already had several children with other women, and Lezlee questioned if he would be a good example for her son.
Her mother warned her once the child was born everything would change. Lezlee decided to find a school outside of Abilene where she could earn some college credit before her mother’s warning came true.
“I kept asking myself, ‘What am I going to do?'” Lezlee said. “That’s when I decided to go ahead and get some credits while I could before the baby came.”
Never a devoted student in high school, Lezlee said she would have excelled had she had more encouragement. Her parents were too preoccupied with their marriage troubles and divorce proceedings to pay much attention to her or her siblings, she said. Rather than focusing on her studies, Lezlee spent most of her time with friends. Today she admits her study habits affected her grades and her chances of getting into college.
“I was a, ‘barely enough to get by’ kind of student,” Lezlee said. “I know if I could have pushed myself a little more, I would have done better.”
With mediocre grades, Lezlee settled for the ESS College of Business, a small business school in Dallas that only offered associate degrees. She hoped to work in an attorney’s office upon completion of a two-year program.
But her plans fell apart when she discovered she had been misled. The school was not accredited, and the time she spent in the classroom had been for nothing. When she uncovered the truth of her educational situation, she was more than eight months pregnant.
“I got stuck with the bill and no credit,” Lezlee said.
With her belly at full size, she chose to collect her losses and return to Abilene.
“I left on a Thursday and had him on that next Monday,” Lezlee said.
On Feb. 7, 2001, Lezlee gave birth to Angel Luna Guitierrez. She chose the name Angel because her grandmother’s name was Angelita and her middle name was Angela. Her son has a different reason for the origin of his name.
“Angels are the best thing in the whole world,” Angel explained.
The first time she held Angel in her arms, she was confronted by the realization of her mother’s prophecy – her life would never be the same.
“That’s the first thing that scares you when you have a kid: everything they do depends on you,” Lezlee said.
While lying in her hospital bed, she began wondering who would take care of Angel while she worked during the day. She worried if she would get a job that paid enough to provide for her son, and where she and her new baby would live.
Lezlee quickly got a job as a bank teller at a local bank to cover the unforeseen expenses of a newborn baby and began renting a house from her aunt. For three years she jumped from bank to bank, making just enough to get by. Relatives watched her infant son, while she worked.
When Angel was about 1-year-old, Lezlee said she tried to reconcile with her son’s father. She hoped to inject a father figure into Angel’s life, but after several incidents of infidelity, Lezlee had enough and called it quits with her son’s father for good.
“We always argued, and I just don’t think it’s healthy to be around a bad environment,” Lezlee said. “I like knowing he’s just my kid, and whatever I say goes.”
While struggling to pay the bills and constantly living from paycheck to paycheck, Lezlee decided the banking business was not for her.
“I realized that I didn’t want to work there forever and that I needed to go back to school,” Lezlee said.
Angel was 3 years old when she traded her job as a bank teller for one waiting tables at night. She took whatever classes she could afford during the day at Cisco Junior College, and never neglected her main responsibility: raising Angel.
While earning credits at Cisco, Lezlee met Manuel Vasquez through a friend. They started dating and have been dating for four years. He works for a wind energy company and grew into the father figure Lezlee always had wanted for Angel.
“It was hard at first because Angel wasn’t used to him being around,” Lezlee said. “He was used to it just being me and him, and all of a sudden somebody’s here all the time. At first he was like, ‘You’re still here? When are you going home?'”
After four years of slowly collecting credits at Cisco, Lezlee transferred to ACU in the fall of 2007.
At 26 years old, she hopes to graduate in 2010, a decade after the day she first stepped into a college classroom. Although the unplanned birth of her son may have slowed down her graduation plans, she could not imagine the past 10 years without Angel.
“We’re just really close because we kinda grew up together,” Lezlee said “I was just a kid when I had him.”
April stood in her University Park apartment bathroom staring at the pink home pregnancy test she just bought at Wal-Mart.
She followed the instructions closely. She prayed she was not pregnant. She feared what a positive result would mean to her life plans and reputation.
Slowly a faded pink positive sign appeared on the test, displaying the beginning of a detour in April’s education and life.
She quickly took the other test that came in the box, just to be sure.
“I might as well,” April said she thought to herself. “Maybe that was wrong; let’s try another one.”
A positive sign appeared a second time, and April grabbed her cell phone to dial the number of her childhood sweetheart, Israel Zapata.
Israel, 24, lived in El Paso and at the time was earning an associate degree in automotive technology at Western Technical College. The two had been dating on and off since high school, and their romantic relationship had been long-distance since its inception. April was one semester into her junior year at ACU, and Israel said the two would talk to each other on the telephone daily and he was expecting a phone call that evening.
“He was actually excited about it,” April said.
Israel was visiting his parents and remembers rushing back to his apartment.
Worried of their reaction, he told his parents the next day. Just as worried, April told hers soon after.
“A lot of people were mad because we weren’t married and because I was going to school and he was still going to school, so my parents just didn’t really understand,” April said.
“There was a lot of criticism,” Israel added.
Both families took the news soberly, Israel said, but had disagreements on what the couple should choose to do.
April was born out of wedlock, and her mother’s experience of raising a child at a young age without a spouse was not what she wished for her daughter; she wanted April to have an abortion.
Israel’s father is a minister; he saw an abortion as shirking responsibility and a sin in God’s eyes.
“My mom had me when she was 18, and didn’t want me to follow in her path,” April said.
“My dad pretty much raised us that when we make a mistake, we’re the ones that take care of it; it’s our consequence,” Israel added quickly after.
After frequent fights on the telephone with her mother, and lectures from Israel’s father, the couple decided it was time to get married and live with the consequence of their actions.
“The family was the hardest to deal with,” April said.
With family and Israel a few hours drive away, April kept her pregnancy a secret while she completed the semester. She heard rumors she would be dismissed from the university for getting pregnant out of wedlock, and it convinced her to keep the news within a small group of friends.
“We really couldn’t tell anybody because I had always heard that ACU looks down on it,” April said.
According to the 2008-09 ACU Student Handbook, there is a policy that prohibits premarital sex. “Cohabitation and/or sexual immorality, including both heterosexual and homosexual behavior,” is a Category Three violation of the student handbook. Disciplinary responses to a Category Three violation may include, but are not limited to, “suspension from the university, an accountability agreement; loss of privilege; minimum fine of $100 or restitution; discretionary assignments; loss or reduction of scholarships; participation in educational programming; eviction from university housing; delay in or prohibition of registering for classes; denial of readmission without approval of Dean of Students or his or her designee,” according to the Student Handbook.
The couple decided April would put her education on hold and take a semester off for the pregnancy.
She returned to El Paso, and the couple married Feb. 29, 2008. Elijah Zapata was born May 9, 2008.
Like Lezlee’s experience, the couple said the focus of their lives changed the day their son was born. Even April’s mother fell in love with her new grandson.
“She loves him now; he’s her world,” April said. “When he was born, she pretty much cried because she was so happy about him.”
While the couple adjusted to being new parents, they decided April would resume her education. Although she was eager to get back to school, she was not looking forward to returning to ACU without her new husband and son.
They did not have a place to live in Abilene, and Israel was searching for a job, so April traveled back to ACU alone.
She would spend most days crying on the telephone. She cherished every moment she could spend on the phone talking to Elijah and Israel.
“The hardest things were not being able to touch him or hold him,” April said. “I remember before I left I would just hold him and cry because I felt like I was neglecting my role as a mother because I thought I was making other people take care of him because I wasn’t able to.”
The tears dried when her son and husband moved to Abilene in October. The couple lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in UP filled with a mix of textbooks, baby food and toys, until they moved to an apartment complex off campus in January.
April splits her schedule going to class and working part time at the “World Famous Bean.” Israel works in the tire and battery center at Sam’s Club.
Israel said the couple “tag-teams” when taking care of Elijah. When one is at work or class, the other watches their son.
Although the couple struggles to pay the bills and relies on food stamps to cover some grocery costs, they are content with just being together. They may not have the typical story of an ACU family, but their pride to be at ACU can be seen through their wardrobe.
“I hope people would understand more that we’re happy with what we are and yeah it is hard, but we are a family,” April said while wearing an “ACU Volunteer” T-shirt.
Her husband nods in agreement in his ACU baseball cap, and Elijah reveals a toothless smile while drool and snot drip onto his Willie the Wildcat T-shirt with the words “On my way to ACU!” in big, bright, purple letters.
Anomalies in the classroom
Although Lezlee and April’s sons have years between them, their mothers’ weekdays both begin the same way: early.
Lezlee is up by 6:30 a.m., preparing breakfast for Angel and finishing last-minute homework at the same time. While Angel catches up on his favorite teams on the NFL Network between bites of his cereal, Lezlee gathers her and her son’s things for school.
In April and Isaiah’s apartment, Elijah is usually the first one up in the morning.
“He’s an early riser,” April said. “He’s the alarm clock; we never set our alarms.”
After teeth are brushed, Elijah is dressed and the couple says their goodbyes, Israel heads to work at Sam’s Club, and April drops their son off at daycare before traveling to her first morning class.
Angel exits his mother’s SUV at Ortiz Elementary School. Lezlee always sneaks a kiss whenever Angel’s friends are not looking.
“I’m embarrassed when she gives me a kiss, but not when she gives me a hug,” Angel said of their morning ritual. “When my mom kisses me, it’s not just one time, but two or three times and she keeps kissing me and the other kids start looking at me.”
“He’s my baby,” Lezlee explains.
Most of Lezlee’s classmates in her classes have no idea she has a 7-year-old son at home.
Lezlee’s cover as a regular student is only blown when the discussion digresses from the lesson of the day.
“My son’s team won this weekend,” Lezlee said to a student adjacent to her desk in her 9:30 a.m. class.
“You have a son?” an eavesdropping student said, interrupting.
April also flies under the radar in the classroom.
She said she does not talk about her home life with her classmates much, but when she is asked, she opens up.
After class, Lezlee and April head to their part-time jobs.
Some days Lezlee waits tables at Olive Garden during the lunch hours before her afternoon classes. Others, she works nights after the school day is done.
April works a similar schedule, spending most of her weekday afternoons and some evenings preparing and serving food in the Bean.
Lezlee picks up Angel around 5 p.m. at his school. If there is no sports practice, they head home where Manuel usually is waiting for them. Lezlee tidies the house and prepares dinner before focusing on the homework she has left over for the evening.
“Usually most moms aren’t busy like that, but my mom’s busy,” Angel said. “My mom always has to work, read a book and do her study work out of a book.”
Israel leaves his job and picks up Elijah from daycare around 2:30 p.m. Depending on the day, April is at work or in class, so Israel watches Elijah during the afternoon.
April gets home around dinnertime, and Israel either heads to work or continues to watch Elijah while April works on homework. When Israel is not there to help, April splits time completing her assignments and playing with her son yearning for attention.
April said she has to manage her time between homework and taking care of her son – a balancing act she sees as harder than the schedule of an average student.
“It’s hard when I have a report due and I need to take care of him and sometimes he doesn’t want to go to bed on time,” April said.
One evening April wrote a paper outside while Elijah swung on his swing outside.
“He just sat there and watched the cars while I finished my paper,” April said.
Between 8-9 p.m., both mothers tuck their sons into bed.
If all of their homework is done, each mother heads to their beds for much-needed rest – another day of balancing motherhood and being a full-time student is a night’s sleep away.
April understands it takes self-sacrifice and devotion to be a good mother, but deep down she admits she sometimes envies other students’ freedom to do whatever they want.
While she used to be able to “hang out all night” or spend time out of the house with her husband, now she must constantly make sure Elijah has everything he needs.
“I really just bottle it up,” April said of her envy. “I have to constantly remind myself that it’s not just me anymore, and I can’t be selfish with what I want to do with my time.”
She hid her pregnancy and is weary when she tells people her story. She said she lies to people about when she and Israel were married because she has grown tired of the judgmental responses she sometimes gets.
“Living on a Christian campus, I think they’re more likely to condemn,” April said. “I lie a lot about the date that we were married or I don’t even explain to people.”
Like April, Lezlee does not regret having Angel, but said it might have been easier had it been expected.
“Other students just don’t understand how much work it is,” Lezlee said. “Some of them just go to class or work, and some of them don’t even work.”
She said she often has trouble getting everything done and can see oncoming difficulties if she works as an anchor for a television station. Lezlee said the strange hours and demanding deadlines in the news business might put a strain on her motherly responsibilities. But this simply will be another obstacle she and her son overcome.
“I’m glad I have him,” Lezlee said. “No matter what, your life is going to be on pause to have a kid; you just don’t know what stage of your life you’re going through at that time.”
Both women said they thank God for the men in their lives who help them through it all.
Manuel is a constant anchor who encourages Lezlee whenever she is overwhelmed. He helps whenever he can and is a great example for Angel, Lezlee said. Lezlee’s devotion to her son and dreams to graduate from college attracted Manuel to her and inspires him to reach for a better life.
“It’s hard; it’s not easy. During the week we’re constantly busy,” Manuel said. “When I get off work, she’s trying to cook dinner or clean up, and at the same time trying to do her school work.”
Lezlee plans to marry Manuel, but not until she is done with school.
“We just have so many bills right now, so I said ‘Forget the ring. Let’s wait until I finish school,'” Lezlee said.
Likewise, April said Israel always has been there for her. He said their love and their son grow daily. Although they do not always know how they will pay for rent, daycare and life’s other expenses, they lean on each other and God.
“You learn how to love,” Israel said. “You have to learn how to love this new person that came into your life right then and there. You have to love everybody that is around you supporting you, and I’ve grown to love my wife more than I used to.”
Both mothers hope to instill the dedication to education they have, and agree there is one lesson their children must learn: wait until the right time to start their own family.
“I love my life and I love where I am right now and I wouldn’t give it up for the world,” April said. “We are young and we did make life-altering decisions, but it doesn’t mean that we’re bad people.”
Homework, money troubles and the day-to-day stresses of motherhood may overwhelm Lezlee and April. But they do not regret the decision to put their educations on hold and have their children.
They both recognize the positive effect motherhood has on their work ethic and determination to succeed, and have daily reminders of the joy their sons bring to their lives.
Lezlee thanks “the Lord every night” for Angel.
Elijah is April’s “whole world.”