There were many times when North Medford High School honor student Ariel Statchwick could have felt defeated.
Raised mostly by her father and with a younger sister who survived leukemia, the ambitious Statchwick once received an F on an honors-level class project and was told by the teacher that she "was just not honors quality."
In times of sorrow, she says, instead of giving up she turns to older, wiser people for advice: mentors, role models and fictional characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien, Walt Disney and J.K. Rowling.
Statchwick, an artist and scholar who wants a career in movie animation, says Tolkien's hobbit Frodo taught her that no matter how small she felt or how large the task, she can succeed with her friends' help.
Tolkien's wizard Gandalf showed her how to trust people, Disney's Dumbo helped her believe in herself, and Rowling's professor Dumbledore proved that even smart people make mistakes.
"I have always respected my teachers, but sometimes even they have a bad day," says Statchwick, 18, who will graduate with an Honors Diploma today. "The one thing I can control in life is my attitude. I've learned that things will get better."
Jeff Olson, who runs the school's College and Career Center, says he is impressed by Statchwick's artistic talent, personality and perseverance.
"She hides the painful experiences in her life and lights up a room when she enters," he says. "She has a heart of gold, and I believe there is no obstacle that can stop her."
This year, Statchwick designed and published a glossy, 40-page art book titled "Courage" that raised $1,000 for Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, where her sister, Amelia, was treated for cancer.
"My sister has successfully defeated leukemia," says Statchwick, standing next to Amelia, a NMHS sophomore, after school on Tuesday.
She smiles at Amelia, then continues: "She is cancer-free and is happy and bratty, as a little sister should be."
Amelia makes a face and they both laugh.
Statchwick drew one of the pieces in the book. It depicts a water spirit reclining in a fantasy forest, her long, green hair flowing over rocks and into a creek.
Also included is a drawing by Amelia that shows a female warrior crossing a wooden bridge to rescue a girl.
Statchwick plans to attend Southern Oregon University in the fall to study art, illustration and animation, which she describes as "breathing life into art."
She will minor in emerging media and digital arts, and she hopes to be a movie director or writer, perhaps working for Disney or DreamWorks, or start her own animation studio.
"I want to help people imagine worlds the way Tolkien and Disney helped me imagine theirs," says Statchwick, who shares a first name with the title character of Disney's "The Little Mermaid," although her father says that wasn't his inspiration.
She has attended Medford schools since she started at Jefferson Elementary in kindergarten, followed by Wilson Elementary for first through fourth grades, then Abraham Lincoln Elementary for fifth and sixth, Hedrick Middle School for seventh and eighth, and NMHS for four years.
On the first day of high school, she was assigned an advisor, John Doty, who happens to be the campus theater director.
"I felt instantly comfortable," says Statchwick, who has been drawing since she could hold a pencil and started creating digital art when she was 13.
Reading fantasy books and drawing helped her take a break from the realities of her life. She remembers her sister's illness "as a numbing experience for me. It felt like happiness was falling out just like her hair."
Statchwick's own monthlong sickness her sophomore year forced her to miss school and resulted in a 2.6 grade point average for the term. Since then, she has taken advanced placement and honors classes to slowly build her cumulative GPA to 3.5 or higher, which is needed to graduate with an Honors Diploma.
At exactly 5 feet tall, she bubbles with energy and optimism, but she does have one regret.
"I'm four inches too tall to technically be a hobbit," she laughs. "I'm pretty upset about that."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.