Palace Station housekeeper Marina Pantaleon sometimes takes her 14-year-old son to work.
By showing Lazaro Cesar how she scrubs toilets and changes sheets to earn a living, she is telling him: "I want you to do something different with your life," said Michelle Diaz, Lazaro's English honors teacher at West Prep Academy.
The eighth-grader was apparently paying attention. He was just awarded a full, four-year scholarship to the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Attending the elite boarding school will "be a life-changer," said Cesar, who is considering careers in politics, maybe as a senator, or in medicine .
Exeter alumni include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Dan Brown, author of "The Da Vinci Code." The co-educational boarding school, which has about 1,000 students, offers more than 450 courses in 19 subject areas and has a student/teacher ratio of 5 to 1.
"I've never been away for more than a week," said Cesar, acknowledging that it's going to be difficult to leave his family. "The fact that I am living in a dorm room without them is very hard, but on the other hand, it's a great opportunity you can't miss."
When Cesar recently learned of his acceptance through a conference call, "there wasn't a dry eye in the room," said West Prep Principal Mike Barton. Family and teachers had gathered for the announcement at West Prep Academy, a K-12 campus near Martin Luther King and Lake Mead boulevards.
Cesar was stunned and momentarily speechless. When he recovered, he told Exeter officials it "would be an honor to go to your school," Barton recalled.
Cesar said his mother and father, Lazaro Cesar Sr., an unemployed painter and construction worker, are his biggest motivators. They are living examples of people "with really good potential" who don't "have the education to do something," he said.
Cesar 's mother is from the Dominican Republic; his father is from Cuba. The two met in Miami where Cesar was later born. Cesar said his parents told him they came to Las Vegas "on vacation and stayed."
Because the parents speak very little English, their two sons act as interpreters. When asked about his brother's Exeter opportunity, younger sibling Lazaro Jonathan Cesar said his parents are sad "because they're going to miss him but at the same time they're proud of him."
SOMETHING TO PROVE
The family lives in "the Las Vegas projects" near J Street and Washington Avenue, said scholarship recipient Lazaro Cesar Jr.
"My neighborhood is not the best or richest neighborhood," he said. "A lot of people tend to use it as an excuse of why they're not succeeding. I tend to use it to my advantage. I want to prove to other people that someone can make it from a bad neighborhood like the one I live in."
Because the family doesn't own a car, Hal Lynch, Exeter's associate director of admissions, gave Cesar and his father a ride to a reception for prospective students at the Montelago Village Resort at Lake Las Vegas in December.
Barton said Lynch "nearly cried on the phone" when he told the principal about seeing the family's modest, cinder block home.
"It was the first time I've been to the projects of Las Vegas," Lynch said. "It was very sobering seeing how some people live there."
Diaz said Cesar has told her of the "violence and drugs" in his neighborhood. "He's very protective of his younger brother. He's like, 'We just go inside to stay away from it,'" the teacher said.
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
At the December reception, Lynch was impressed that Cesar wore a "button-down shirt and tie" even though he was told it would be a casual event.
"He was dressed for success," Lynch recalled.
Cesar also was the one "with all the questions," Lynch said. His enthusiasm and curiosity impressed upon Lynch that Cesar was Exeter material.
Cesar also scored high on an entrance exam and had been a former summer intern for U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. The senator met Cesar when Ensign was the keynote speaker for West Prep's high school graduation ceremony last year.
As a seventh-grader, Cesar gave the opening remarks at the ceremony, telling the graduating seniors not to forget about the younger students at West Prep. Cesar met the senator a second time during a school trip to Washington, D.C., and got the internship.
Ensign wrote Cesar a letter of recommendation to Exeter.
Cesar, his mother and Barton will fly to Exeter next week to tour the campus before Cesar makes a final commitment.
For next year's freshmen class, Exeter received 1,305 applications and admitted 225, including eight students from Las Vegas. Exeter currently has 13 students from Southern Nevada.
Lynch has aggressively recruited in the Las Vegas area for the past three years because the population is so diverse.
Exeter was founded in 1781 as a school for the "rich, white and male," but, Lynch said, "we have moved so far away from that. We have created a melting pot because that is the world these kids are going to go out to."
Exeter students come from 47 states and 20 countries. The enrollment is about 50 percent white. Thirty percent of the remaining students are Asian, 10 percent are black and 7 percent are Hispanic. Nearly half of the students qualify for financial aid. The school's annual tuition is $41,800.
In contrast to local high schools, where 40 or more students to a classroom is considered normal, Exeter limits classes to a maximum of 12 students.
"The 12 students sit around a table and learn through discussion," Lynch said, adding that no lectures are given. "The focus is not on what the teacher knows but what the student has learned."
The students are "bringing their different perspectives, their background," he said. "It can be a really empowering way of learning, especially for kids who come from large class sizes who are listening to lectures all the time."
Cesar will be missed, but family and friends said it's not as if he's going to disappear.
"Even my grandmother knows about Lazaro," Diaz said . "I talk to my grandmother a lot. He's that kid that I tell my grandmother, 'He's going to do something. He's going to be somebody we're going to know about later.' "
Contact reporter James Haug at email@example.com or 702-374-7917.