The Victorious Personality
April 20, 1986
By Gail Sheehy

“The thing that drove me is I always looked at difficulties as temporary, and always looked forward.”

THE BOMB drop near me while I'm eating. Surprise attack. Everybody in the dining hall runs. To tell the truth, I don't feel frightened at all. Just keep on eating.

Another attack comes. Bomb after bomb, then soldiers march into the village. People scream for their children, "Hurry up!" People scatter in different directions. The Khmer Rouge try to move the whole town from place to place and keep control of many people. We move very near the edge of a forest.

I try to remember again why my mother and father die. Where is my older brother? Why couldn't I keep my little sister alive? She could come with me now and I'd find a way for us to live.

Bomb sound like thunder all day, until the sun goes down. In the forest I'm lost but I'm free. Like a bird, I go from one person to another and fly off. All Pol Pot people. Some want to share food with me but I don't trust. I don't eat. You can trust the animals. They're not like people.

I make friends with the monkeys. They climb to the top of the fruit trees and pick the best fruit. They drop down some to me. I eat what they eat, that way I know it's not poison.

IT IS THE VOICE OF THE SURVIVOR - in this case a young Cambodian girl, Phat Mohm, who lived through four years of the genocidal Pol Pot regime in which at least two million perished.

Mohm lost almost all of her family. When the Vietnamese invaded her country in 1979, she and millions of others were faced with a terrible choice: Which way to run? Many Cambodians went with the Vietnamese, hoping for protection. Others were intimidated by their captors, the Khmer Rouge, and fled with them. Mohm, 10 years old, struck out on her own.

Mohm did not survive by chance. Whatever help she may have had from fate, this child clearly had the soul of a survivor. What I have discovered by living for the last three and a half years with Mohm, whom I have adopted, and doing research among young Americans at risk is, briefly, this: Sudden or disorienting change introduced into the family or social or political environment of a child does not necessarily leave permanent scars on temperament. Quite the contrary. Adversity is part of life, and learning to master adversity is one of the basic ways of gaining self-confidence and self-esteem. Disorders of behavior that may develop while a child or adolescent is in the midst of crisis often subside or disappear once a consistency of environment and relationships is re-established. And the experience of knowing one has survived can offer a psychological shield against future disasters in adult life.

“I began to think that life was not over, if I just kept going, someday luck will come.” PHAT MOHM

The winner against adversity emerges with what I call the victorious personality. One may be born with a naturally resilient temperament, but one develops a victorious personality. Those who do often come to believe they are special, perhaps meant to serve a purpose beyond themselves. Among the elements that contribute to a victorious personality are the ability to bend according to circumstance, self-trust, social ease (and the facility to put others at ease), and the understanding that one's plight is not unique. A strong relationship with a polestar, an older person who serves as a proxy parent or a mentor, appears to be essential. But the clue to a young person with a potentially victorious personality is the ability to reach out and connect with whatever polestars are available.

“It was terrible, but here again is the terrific will to survive... the majority of survivors became strong…” TRUDY AND LEWIS SCHLOSS

ONE NIGHT I DON'T hear a shot for about two hours. I finish the fruit and I'm looking for a place to sleep when I see him - a boy looks like my father, carrying a gun.

His eyes see me. He cannot say the name but his eyes say I am his sister. I'm really happy to see him alive, my brother.

We cannot say much at all.

I say, "Why don't you come with me?"
He say, "I cannot.”
He say he's going to a real bad place. I, his sister, would get punish too.
He's nervous, keeps looking around to see who's watching us. It's only a minute or two we have to talk.
Then he whisper to me. "You don't have to stay around these Pol Pot people anymore. They can't stop you now.”

I ask him one more time, please, let's run together. Then on the way we can find someplace to stay and we can always be a family. But my brother never does listen to me. I'm just a little girl.

He tell me, "Go to a place you think is good for you to live. If I die, still you. If you die, still me. That's a good way to do it. "

NOT EVEN A CHANCE ENCOUNTER with her beloved older brother offered Mohm refuge. She was 10 years old and alone in a brutal world.

According to a long-held premise of Western psychologists and psychiatrists, such children should be blighted for life. More often than not, their childhood trauma will be echoed in an anxious or troubled adulthood. But even before I met Mohm, I had stumbled onto evidence that children of trauma are far more resilient than has been assumed.

As an outgrowth of researching the predictable crises of adult life for my book "Passages," I explored in a companion volume the unpredictable crises, and the people who not only survive but benefit from them - "Pathfinders." In the histories of the hundreds of successful adults winnowed out of 60,000 respondents, one common denominator struck me: most had endured a traumatic period during childhood or adolescence. They may have been born into poverty, or have lost a parent through abandonment, divorce or sudden death, or had an alcoholic or mentally ill parent. Yet those who were to become the most resilient adults overcame childish limitations and found themselves performing - temporarily - on a level of maturity well beyond their years. Once the period of emergency had passed, however, the youngster was often eager to act his age.

“You can’t sit around waiting to be challenged. You have to go out and look for challenges.” DENNIS LYNCH

I set aside further exploration into the phenomenon, but five years ago a personal involvement made the subject compelling. In the course of interviewing young Cambodian refugees languishing in camps in Thailand for a newspaper article, I met Mohm and fell in love with her. After nine months of efforts to bring her out as my foster daughter, the trail appeared to have gone cold.

Then, one day I came home to find a message on my answering machine: "Phat Mohm arriving tomorrow night, September 30, Northwest Airlines, Flight 8, J.F.K., 8:30 P.M."

Halfway around the earth, a small orphaned survivor who had already walked across the border of the damned took another risk. She gave away her six sarongs to children left behind. She found homes for her bird and cat, said goodbye to the only stable home she had known in seven years and stepped off the edge of her world.

Finding myself suddenly the parent of a survivor personalized and intensified all those seemingly unfathomable questions about life accidents: Why do they break some people and make others stronger? What is the difference between the temperament of one who succumbs to trauma and one who emerges victorious? Once cast as survivors, could they ever unlock their hearts and become trusting, joyful children again?

LATER, MOHM DESCRIBED another moment of choice whether to make a run for the border. Thailand is only about 60 miles from where she had temporarily settled, in Moung, a part of Cambodia not yet occupied by the Vietnamese. But the terrain was treacherous and the survivors of Pol Pot had no shoes.

"Now and then I remember something of that time," Mohm said in a whispery voice, "especially the mines. People go through there before us, it's a trail of the dead. You see a body, another, another. A mine blows up in front of you - phhssh-swok! Then a finger floats by. Natural as a leaf blowing in the wind.

"You become accustom to it," she said. "You even see people killed in front of your face, shot by the big guns or blow up; you see it all the time …"

Abruptly her voice became matter-of-fact, as if it were necessary to ostracize the nonsurvivors. "A lot of people drink from bad streams, they got sick and died, and many people stepped on mines - I wasn't one of those people."

With each narrow escape, Mohm said, she felt stronger. "I began to think that life was not over, if I just kept going, someday luck will come to me. I will be important and help other people to think better."

Mohm told of tossing sleeplessly as she thought about how to find safe water. One day she came upon a trickle of water springing out of the ground: sweet, fresh water. Euphoric, she searched everywhere for a container one of the fleeing soldiers might have discarded, and finding one, she took it as a sign.

"I started thinking, 'Maybe God has a plan for me,"' she recalled. "If I didn't think that way, I would have given up so many times." For a period of months she had felt dismally guilty, hating herself for not being able to take over for her mother, for failing to keep the life from ebbing out of her starved younger brother and sister. "But then I realized that, if I stayed unhappy and feeling guilty, it won't do any good for anyone," she said. "If I'm the only one in the family alive, probably God had some purpose I was saved for."

Survivors like Mohm have an answer for one of the most terrible spiritual questions: "Why me?" Given our Judeo-Christian ethic, it is usually interpreted as: "How did I deserve to be spared? Why me and not my mother, my, father, my sisters? Why not the innocent children?"

Finding no answer, a survivor may lose faith and limp through the rest of life as if through a mine field of pure chance. But other survivors come to believe, with each instance of being in the right place at the right time, that they might have been spared for a reason. And the more they come to believe in themselves as special, the longer many of them survive.

Like many Cambodian refugees I have interviewed, Mohm believes her purpose is to bear witness. "If what I've gone through can help give people another idea about how to change their society, not through killing, maybe it's not for nothing. So I think it's good that I survived."

I call this "survival merit," and it is one of the hallmarks of the victorious personality. Tested again and again, one develops the strength and self-directedness necessary to fix one's sights and chart a course without depending on outside forces -indeed, often in spite of them.

Survivor merit is obviously a more healing concept than survivor guilt. Although it is a natural extension of the belief in destiny that prevails in the East, it is not a notion exclusive to Asians. Reflections by 28 French-Jewish men and women, hidden as children with Christian families during the Holocaust, were collected by Claudine Vegh in her book "I Didn't Say Goodbye."

The introduction expresses a common theme: "Having escaped persecution by the Nazis, I have always had the impression that life has been 'granted' to me a second time. And so I had to show that I deserved that life, that I was worthy to live it. It was no longer even mine: I was living, in a way, by proxy. "

A SECOND HALLMARK of the victorious personality is "plasticity" - the ability to bend according to circumstance, but without forfeiting the inner conviction of a reason for being. In Cambodia, Mohm went from a protected urban life to working in the rice paddies. When a Khmer Rouge woman drafted her as a baby-nurse, Mohm assumed the role of dutiful daughter. When fleeing through the forest, she made friends with monkeys in order to share their fruit. A week after coming to the United States, she was whisked off to Miami, where I had a speaking engagement. Suddenly there she was at a cocktail reception, utterly blasé, balancing a plate of hors d'oeuvres.

Not only was she able to adapt quickly and at least appear comfortable with abrupt change, Mohm went out of her way to make those around her feel comfortable as well. Recognition of others is critical in attracting the attention and support of adults. All along, however, Mohm maintained a vivid inner life, and her own faith in protection by a divine hand.

Two survivors of the Holocaust, Lewis and Trudy Schloss, recently recalled other instances of what I would call plasticity. Born into the German Jewish middle-class, Lewis Schloss was an apprentice paperhanger until he was sent to a concentration camp in 1942.

"Everything I did was by the seat of my pants," recalls Mr. Schloss, who has a large, expressive face and deep, purplish pouches under his eyes. 'When it was necessary to be a thief, I was a thief. When it was useful to be a mechanic, I presented myself as a mechanic. When there were selections, I disappeared or got excused."

Trudy Ullmann Schloss, a diminutive woman with red hair and dancing eyes, was studying nursing in Berlin when the arrests of her entire family began. A year later, when the last of her relatives were being sent to camps, she decided voluntarily to join them and gave herself up. She was eventually taken to Camp Kaiserwald, in Riga, Latvia, where a frightening experience occurred on her first day.

Called to the morning lineup with about 2,000 other prisoners, she stood in the first row. A tall, blond SS corporal paced up and down, snapping her whip against her immaculate uniform and staring constantly at Mrs. Schloss. Terrified, the young Jewish woman tried to avoid eye contact, but the corporal stopped directly in front of her.

"Are you Trudy Ullmann?" she barked.
Mrs. Schloss said yes.
"Do you remember me?" the corporal demanded.
Mrs. Schloss said no.
"Do you remember Schauer's?"

On hearing the name of the shoe store her family used to frequent, Mrs. Schloss made eye contact with the woman and nodded.

"Well," the corporal said, drawing herself up, "I remember your mother coming in with you and your sister and buying shoes."

Mrs. Schloss attempted a smile. She was ordered to wait after the lineup. A prisoner behind her whispered to watch out, Corporal Kowa was the worst of the worst.

But from that day on, Mrs. Schloss became "her Jew." Corporal Kowa gave her an inside job, sorting and packing the clothes of those shot, which lasted through the bitter winter. Mrs. Schloss understood that her protector needed to feel that she was a good person. She came to see the corporal as "exactly what we were - ordinary people who liked to have power." Here she was, once a lowly salesperson who waited on Mrs. Schloss and her mother, but who now could decide whether she froze or remained warm enough to survive.

"Being what she wanted me to be prolonged my life, no question about it," says Trudy Schloss today, unashamedly. "She came sometimes to look for me in the barracks and bring me bread and cookies. The next day she might put 10 others on the transport to be killed. It was terrible, but here again is the terrific will to survive. I believe the majority of survivors became fairly strong mentally. We started from zero when we came to America, but many worked hard and became successful, even becoming professionals."

The Schlosses met as prisoners when she was transferred, with 25 other women, to the camp Lewis Schloss was in, near Kaiserwald. He offered her some "liberated" - stolen - buckwheat. "I liked him because he gave me some food," she says with a knowing laugh. "We started a good friendship." He was later transferred to Buchenwald. After being liberated by the Russians, Trudy Schloss made her way there and discovered that he had escaped. While traveling on to Stuttgart, she met a woman from Lewis Schloss's hometown, near Düsseldorf. She gave the woman a note for Lewis that said simply, "I am alive, I will be in Stuttgart." A year later, he found her there. "You're going with me," he told her. "We're going to get married.".

Today the Schlosses are retired in Teaneck, N.J., where both serve as hospital volunteers. Eager to educate the public about the realities of survival, they speak at schools under the auspices of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust through education.

Survival merit is part of their healthy attitude, too. Trudy Schloss ruminates: "After liberation, you ask yourself, 'How come I survived and all my family -uncles, aunts, everyone except my sister - did not? But you say, all right, I did survive. I am a decent human being."

The foundation of all adult development is, according to human-development theorist Erik H. Erikson, "basic trust," first established through the relationship of child with mother and later transferred to the world at large. But for children betrayed by virtually all they have been taught to trust, what can be the root of hope?

Self-trust is another canon of the victorious personality. Survivors must rely on their own nature, acting and moving much of the time by instinct. Because moments of choice present themselves seldom and abruptly, the survivor must rely on intuition to make quick character judgments and snap decisions.

These elements of the victorious personality apply equally to Americans who face more common life accidents: an absent or alcoholic parent, a bitter divorce, a problem child, crushing debt, a career crash, serious illness. Indeed, the resources used by ordinary people in periods of personal upheaval resemble the resources drawn upon by the classic extraordinary survivor.

But for those like Mohm, who have survived cruel losses, the hurt doesn't stop altogether. Some researchers like to refer to such survivors as "invulnerable children," yet no one is invulnerable forever. Indeed, having been denied a period of normal childhood, victorious people often relish the chance, once their lives have been stabilized, to recapture some of the spontaneous zest of youth. "I know how to act grown-up," says Mohm, who behaves around classmates like every other teen-ager. "But I don't do it with my friends. I don't want to grow up fast."

IT IS A POPULAR CONCEPTION that alcoholism, child abuse, teen-age pregnancy and other social problems are cyclical - children tend to repeat the mistakes of the parents. Because we study the small proportion whose adult lives do become blighted, we forget to acknowledge the larger numbers of their sisters and brothers who break the cycle.

What about the children of alcoholics who do not become alcoholics? If sudden death or desertion by a parent were universally devastating, how then do we explain the fact that many highly accomplished people have this experience in common?

All of Bernadette Coston's friends dropped out of high school to have babies. She had seen her own family shattered one night when she was 6. Social workers in South Boston, finding Bernadette's mother drunk and her father locked out, separated Bernadette and her five brothers. She knocked around in different foster homes after that, always angry.

At 15, having gone steady for three years with the same boy, Bernadette unintentionally became pregnant. Her boyfriend left; at first she thought her world had caved in. But as she contemplated motherhood, she was comforted by a thought that motivates many young girls from chaotic family backgrounds who are starved for a consistency of affection: "It would be wonderful to have somebody who would love me back for me, not for money."

When her son, Damon, was born, she discovered the delight of going home and finding someone there who was always happy to see her. "Before, it didn't make any difference to me how my life turned out," Bernadette says. As a mother, she felt capable and needed, unlike at school, where she felt unimportant and inadequate.

Bernadette began to use her baby as an excuse not to go to school. She was present for only 26 days in her entire junior year, and, not surprisingly, earned D's and F's. But she blamed her teachers for not passing her. Counselors at South Boston High School strongly urged that she take a survival course with Outward Bound, and she agreed.

"You had to eat gorp and go to the bathroom over the side of a boat," Bernadette says now, laughing and tossing her beaded corn row hair as she recalls the six strenuous days on an island off the coast of Maine. But it was a turning point in her life. She missed her baby and demanded to be sent home. "But you're making it," the counselors urged. The day after she got home, she regretted not having completed the course. It began to dawn on Bernadette that she was blaming everybody else for her failings. She promised her teachers a big improvement if they would let her repeat her senior year. They agreed.

Bernadette's current foster mother, Josephine Jones, gave her some choices. If she wanted to finish school, she would probably have to put her son in a foster home until she finished.

"That did it," Bernadette recalls. "No way was I going to let anybody put my baby in a foster home and take him away from me - not even for a week."

Determined not to subject her son to a repeated cycle of unhappiness in foster homes, Bernadette vowed to take over the enterprise of her life - to finish school and care for her son at the same time "Once Mrs. Jones saw that I really wanted to do something with my life, she became more helpful," Bernadette acknowledges. Mrs. Jones offered to watch Damon, free of charge, in her day-care center.

Over the last year, Bernadette has discovered reservoirs of strength and energy she never knew she had. She goes eagerly to school, where she is earning all A's and B's. Her five brothers - who live in other foster homes have pitched in to help with Damon when she has homework. They, too, have now invested in Bernadette's success in keeping her little family together.

What is more, she has been recognized for her efforts in contributing to racial harmony in school. South Boston High School was once the focus of the war between the city's blacks and whites over mandatory busing. Now, 10 years later, its student body is 38 percent black, 30 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic and 14 percent Asian refugees and native Americans. Bernadette has acted as an emissary of friendship among the Asian, white and black students assigned to study together in special classes. She was named Student of the Month in February and writes essays in the school paper, where she emphasizes, "We're like a big family."

Calmly supervising her energetic 1 1/2-year-old son, Bernadette talks about her goals for the future: studying nursing perhaps, or pursuing a career as a beautician. "Before, I'd just quit," she says. "I like a challenge now."

I asked Bernadette if she thought it was possible for almost anyone to change. "Yes," she said, hesitating. "It's hard, though. It's like trying to ride a bike. If you fall, you got to get up and try it again. It's only as hard as you make it. Now I know I can do anything, if I just put myself to it."

Bernadette Coston: finishing school while caring for her baby.

RECENTLY, A NUMBER of birth-to-maturity studies have offered further refutation of the old premise that emotionally traumatized children are doomed and parents' early mistakes are usually irrevocable. In a group of 133 middle- and upper-middle-class children born in New York in a 4-year period whose childhood was traumatized by parental conflict, death, divorce, or dangerously rigid demands, almost half had significant problems in adjustment at some point in their early years. But by their mid-20's, only 6 of that group had deteriorated emotionally, and the others had developed some psychological immunity and were functioning as healthily and happily as those who had experienced no trauma in childhood.

The death of a parent did not exert a negative effect on these youngsters over the long run, according to Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, the husband-and-wife team of psychiatrists who conducted the study. Nor was divorce predictive of continuing emotional adjustment problems; on the contrary, many of the children in divorced families developed mature coping mechanisms early.

Twenty-six black men and women who "beat the odds" despite severely impoverished backgrounds are the subject of an important study by Dr. Edmund W. Gordon, a professor of psychology at Yale University, and. Dr. Ronald L. Braithwaite, a psychologist who directs a health education center in Norfolk, Va. Starting from the lowest income status, these subjects defied the negative predictions. They acquired good educations and parlayed their competence into successful careers. As adults they live and work enthusiastically and effectively with all those around them.

Highly self-directed, they have the capacity to set goals without depending on, or sometimes in spite of, the push and pull of others. But their own effort was not enough. To overcome the odds, a strong relationship with someone acting as a model, a provider or a mentor was essential. For the people in this study, this role was filled by surrogate parents, teachers, guidance counselors or ministers.

I call these transformative figures polestars, and they appear to be crucial in helping to inspire and support the victorious personality. A polestar is any adult who has purpose and direction and endorses the youngster as worthy, who may offer a goal that is healing and who helps seed the future with the hope that things will get better.

Raymond L. Hall, who was part of the Gordon and Braithwaite study, was only a year old when both his parents were killed. His aunt, Anna May Gregory, who is now dead, took him in and raised him on a truck farm in east Texas. The turning point for young Raymond came one morning as he set off to sixth grade. His aunt was starting a job as a domestic. He looked down at her shoes. Where the soles had worn out, she had stuffed them with cardboard.

"I said, 'God Almighty, one day I'm going to make it so that you don't have to do this anymore,' " he recalls.

Today, Raymond Hall, 48, is chairman of the department of sociology at Dartmouth and author of several scholarly books. And he still chokes up when he tells the story. Even at that young age, he understood that what his aunt was doing for him was the purest act of altruism. From then on, whenever he faced personal difficulties, Hall was able to conceptualize - "just leave my own body and stand back and observe the options," he says. It freed him of anger and grudges and attracted other polestars to him.

One was the heir of a powerful white merchant family. Raymond Hall started working for him at 13 as a yard boy, then "graduated" to working inside, where he expressed a keen interest in books. "Joe W. Hirsch Jr. began to recognize me as a human being," Hall remembers, "lending me books, discussing them with me, encouraging me to stay in school." He managed to get through college in five years by fitting in courses around his work for Hirsch. But it wasn't until he turned 30, with a master's degree and military benefits and several fellowships to study for his doctorate at Syracuse University, that Hall could reward his surrogate mother. He'd go home and, with the sweetest satisfaction, sign a full book of checks for her.

"The thing that drove me," he says, is "I always looked at difficulties as temporary, and always looked forward."

But for all the importance of polestars, those with a victorious personality do not lean on others any longer than necessary. Even today, Hall says of himself, "I'm almost irrationally independent."

IS THE VICTORIOUS personality inborn, or can one develop it? The answer is: both.

About 10 percent of children are born with the tendency to be shy, vigilant, fearful, easily upset by the face of a stranger or a change in feeding or sleeping routines, according to Dr. Jerome Kagan, a Harvard developmental psychologist who conducts studies of temperament among white children. At the other end of the spectrum, he says, 10 percent are born with a sociable, effervescent, spontaneous temperament, and are usually intrigued by a change in routine or a new face. But all inborn temperaments -particularly those of the 80 percent who fall between the naturally anxious and the naturally resilient can be influenced strongly during times of stress by the way their parents perceive, and react to, such events.

It is my premise that a person's temperament - or characteristic frame of mind - is not fixed by the age of 2 or 6 or 26, but is malleable. Except for some of that 10 percent born with a susceptibility to anxiety under stress, I would predict that a traumatic period in childhood (after infancy) or adolescence, may enable a person to handle accidents more calmly and effectively later in life.

The challenged life may be the best therapist.

Certainly Dennis Lynch's life demonstrates the annealing effect of being severely challenged. Dennis was a happy-go-lucky hockey player going nowhere in school, according to the headmaster of South Boston High School, Jerome C. Winegar. Like roughly 30 percent of Southie students, Dennis did not expect to graduate. But something happened last summer that changed him dramatically. His mother died.

"My Mom was everything to me," says the young man with a red broom of hair dashed across his freckled Irish face.

The youngest of five children in a housing-project family, he never knew his father, who died when Dennis was a baby. His older brothers and sisters had all quit school and moved out. Dennis himself had to decide whether to return to school to earn the necessary credits for graduation, although, as a fifth-year student, he couldn't play hockey. "I thought I'd quit school and go downhill," he recalls. But at the last moment, his mother's constant entreaty that he should graduate ringing in his ears, the boy went back.

It was a writing coach who first opened the boy's feelings of love and grief. Students were asked to put the gritty experiences of their own lives on paper to be used as classroom texts, part of a two-year program designed by the school to complement existing English programs. These raw stories deal with violence and complex feelings about interracial social life, as well as death and disintegration within families. Katie Singer, the writing coach, offered to spend extra time with Dennis to shape his natural gift for gab into prose.

"It meant a lot for me to get all of my feelings out," Dennis now says. "Instead of letting them become an emotional scar, it's a healing feeling." The watershed was the day his writing was first published in the school's literary anthology.

"Hey, I can write," he recalls the voice that sang inside of him. "I am somebody."

Writing can also help the youngster to comprehend experience, not only as a personal travail, but as a phenomenon. The crucial mental leap - "I'm not the only one!" - releases one from feeling like a loser, and often fosters creative interpretation. It has been noted by a number of the researchers cited in this article, as well as in my own work, that young people who prevail over trauma sometimes become exceptionally creative and original, expressing symbolically in sculpture, painting or writing the turmoil they have suffered.

Dennis Lynch's headmaster endorsed his writing efforts and pointed him toward the goal of journalism. One of his essays, about his mother, was published in The Boston Globe. His hockey coach, with whom he remained close, taught him discipline. And the more he enjoyed the support of these polestars, the more he reached out for other adults who could help him. His mother's boyfriend responded like the father he never had. His best friend's parents, Donna and Jake Reardon, welcomed him into their home. When he announced, "I'll be the first in my family to graduate," his 31-year-old brother exhorted him, "Don't follow my path. You can even go to graduate school!"

Now 18, Dennis talks exuberantly of his intention to go to college and study journalism, while keeping up his prowess as a hockey player. Already financially independent (combining part-time work with saving his Social Security checks), Dennis says, "You can't sit around waiting to be challenged. You have to go out and look for challenges."

"All the maturity you see in Dennis today has developed over the last two years," says Winegar, "starting with when he learned his mother had cancer."

The headmaster looks on the young man almost with awe. "Compared to some of the most privileged young men in this town, Dennis is an adult while they're still children."

Gail Sheehy is the author of "Passages" and "Pathfinders." This article is adapted from her forthcoming book "Spirit of Survival, " to be published next month by William Morrow & Company.