Published June 06. 2011 4:00AM Updated June 13. 2011 8:33AM
New London - In many ways, Aaron Castillo is a typical high school senior.
He has a group of friends he meets routinely at Wendy's; he's looking forward to attending college after graduation; and he's saving money to buy a car working part time at the local grocery store.
Ask him the checkout code for string beans at the New London ShopRite and he'll tell you: 9005.
"He likes joking around and looking at girls,'' said his boss Ray Ballirano, who called Castillo a good and conscientious worker. "But he has the kind of attitude where he's trying to get ahead."
Castillo, who was born in the United States but grew up in Honduras, returned to Connecticut when he was 15 - without his family and not knowing how to speak English.
"I didn't know anyone,'' said Castillo, who is now 18 and who will join about 200 other New London High School seniors for graduation June 20.
He immersed himself in the language, listening only to American music, watching only American television shows and taking English as a Second Language classes.
Six weeks after he arrived, he said he burst into tears because he missed his family. In Honduras, he left his mother, who works on a military base, his father, who is a teacher, and friends he has known since childhood. He also has a 13-year-old brother and a 14-year-old sister.
"I was having trouble understanding what my teachers were saying. My grades were down to the floor,'' he said during an interview in late May at New London High School. "I was so homesick I just slept and did my homework."
At the end of 10th grade he returned to Comayagua, a city of about 60,000 people in Honduras, and finished 11th grade there. But he came back to New London in September for his senior year and to get his diploma after a girl he was seeing in Honduras for about a month said she didn't want to date a loser.
"I knew I could do it,'' Castillo said. "For all the people who didn't believe I could do it, for all the stuff I went through, I had to prove to everyone I can make it. I can do it.''
So in many ways, Castillo is also a typical graduating senior at New London High, where the student body represents 28 countries and two-thirds are minorities.
"He's overcome a lot of educational bumps in the road,'' said Erin McGuire, director of guidance. "A lot of high school students sometimes are faced with an obstacle or a situation they are not prepared for. Aaron has tackled all his obstacles and he's persevered."
In Honduras, which is one of the poorest countries in Central America, Castillo worked part time at a factory unloading trucks. He earned $5 a day.
Here, the possibilities are nearly limitless, he said. It doesn't matter if you work at McDonald's or at a car wash, he said, but one has to have a want to make something of their life.
"There are too many opportunities here to fail," he said. "Anyone can be successful here. You need to wish for it. You have to work for it."
At New London High, Castillo was on the wrestling team and earned the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class in the junior ROTC. In May, he was summoned to City Hall where he received a award for outstanding community service.
He will start classes June 27 at University of Connecticut-Avery Point, which awarded him $14,000 in grants and scholarships. He hopes to move into student housing near the Groton campus.
He wants to work with computers or be a veterinarian and return to Honduras.
His uncle, Edwin Rodriguez, with whom Castillo now lives on Ocean Avenue, said his nephew is focused on achieving his goals.
"He's athletic, doesn't smoke or drink, he has a good head on his shoulders,'' Rodriguez said. "He wants to reach a goal and I'm glad we can give him the opportunity."
McGuire, the guidance counselor, said Castillo is well on his way to reaching his goals.
"He's exceptionally bright, polite and so nice to be around,'' she said.
Castillo said it has not been easy leaving his family and friends, but it has been worth it.
One of his proudest moments, he said, was when his dad hugged him before he returned to the United States the second time.
"He said he admired me for coming back. He said I was like a fighter and I made him proud,'' he said.