I READ once that alcoholics tend to
have less formal education than other groups of people.
The explanation was simply that early drinking problems
or emotional difficulties interfere with an individual's
classroom performance, causing him to fail or to drop
out before graduation. Other potential alcoholics are
often under-achievers, managing to get through school,
but not exactly setting scholarship records in the process.
The reason this information from a long-discarded
newspaper clipping sticks in my mind is that it seems
so true of my own case. I had dropped out of high school
back in 1941 after failing almost half my courses. During
World War II, I tried to make up for this educational
gap through reading and correspondence study, and by
1947 I was able to enter college on the basis of successfully
passing the General Educational Development tests. But
my drinking was in full swing by then, and early the
following year I was both a high-school and a college
dropout. A few years later, I was safely in AA, but
the thought of attempting additional schooling terrified
me to such an extent that I felt some emotional distress
even when I visited a school on business.
Last winter, however, a rather funny
thing happened to me on my way into my forties as a
double dropout. I went back to evening high school and
completed the work necessary for a high-school diploma.
I have also enrolled in the local community college
for additional evening studies, and have been accepted
as a "fully qualified" student. It's nice
to be regarded as good college material, even with a
thinning hairline, but my greatest satisfaction comes
from the newly acquired high-school diploma, which,
with forty-three other adults, I received at the special
commencement exercises in June. It is a beautifully
lettered document in a smartly printed green cover and
certainly surpasses in elegance the diplomas of twenty
I owe my diploma to several things,
one being a recently acquired ability to study that
seemed to come with years. Another important factor,
of course, was the availability of a progressive adult
high school in the local system, staffed by an alert
principal and a forward-thinking superintendent dedicated
to the goal of helping older persons finish their education.
But a large part of my progress is owed to AA, which
over the years helped me overcome the serious personal
shortcomings that caused me to drop out of school in
the first place. Some of those defects tried to make
a comeback this time, but by now I was wise to them,
and they didn't have a chance.
The first time one of the defects asserted
itself was when I read the notice about the adult high
school in the local paper last January. The notice listed
more than thirty class-room subjects. It also described
how one might achieve additional credits based on work
experience, community service, military schooling, correspondence-school
work, and through an evaluation of performance by testing.
The notice excited me, but an old defect--fear--almost
made me chicken out. What if I enrolled and couldn't
cut the mustard? Suppose I took the examinations for
additional credit and failed them with a big bang? Wouldn't
this tear me down even more, stripping away the shabby
defenses that I had built up to cover my educational
deficiency? Could I afford to be a dropout for a third
time if I failed?
Well, AA had taught me that if you take
positive action when fear is present, more often than
not the fear leaves. A few evenings later, I was sitting
on a bench in the office of the adult high school, waiting
to see the principal. To my embarrassment, he turned
out to be the husband of a young woman whom I had dated
in our single days about twelve years ago. I had never
told her I was a high-school dropout, and now the truth
was coming home with a vengeance. To make matters worse,
the lady herself popped out of an adjoining room and
gave me a cheerful greeting. I was within an eyelash
of mumbling a lame excuse and bolting for home.
But it turned out surprisingly well.
The principal seemed glad to accept my application,
and quickly assigned me to a counselor, who explained
how the adult high school functioned. It was an ungraded
three-year school, she told me. The students were not
assigned to tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grades, but
merely attended until they had the twenty-four credits
needed for graduation. Students could transfer credits
from their former high schools, and could be given additional
credits on the basis of tests and work experience. She
said that one young woman of exceptional ability had
earned sixteen credits from tests alone and had been
able to graduate simply by taking a semester of American
Government, a required course in all Michigan high schools.
This sounded promising, although I shuddered
at the thought of taking educational-development examinations
for credit. But she also pointed out that a person could
earn up to eight credits for work achievement and community
service. This meant that a qualified individual could
actually be granted a high-school diploma based on testing
and his general record. I decided it was worth the effort,
and signed up for American Government. And then a second
demon from the past--impatience--came to plague me.
I had waited twenty-six years for a high-school diploma,
and now I wanted to get it all over in a week's time!
The course in American Government proved
to be an outlet for some of my impatience, because it
was designed to allow the student to go at his own pace.
By doubling and tripling the lessons every week, I was
able to gain a sense of high accomplishment early in
the semester, and had completed all the assignments
in seven weeks. But there was a penalty for my impatience:
I then had to take on additional lessons for the remaining
On the evening of my first examination,
I encountered a third shortcoming from the past. This
was self-doubt, a gnawing fear that my answers were
incorrect. This had made test-taking a terrible ordeal
in my younger days, but now I brushed self-doubt aside
by reminding myself that I had studied hard and was
bound to do well. I actually finished by getting an
A in the course, the first high-school A I had ever
A fourth defect from bygone days also
tried to give a repeat performance. This defect stemmed
from a mixture of pride and resentment, the kind of
feeling that had always given me a chip-on-the-shoulder
attitude in the classroom. The first time I found myself
wrong on a question, my ruffled pride made me want to
stamp out of the room in a huff. It quickly passed,
for I had learned control long ago. How many times,
for example, had I seen individuals stamp out of AA
meetings and head for a bar.
As the weeks went on, I began to look
forward to the evening classes and to face the tests
with increasing confidence. At the same time, I was
busy getting together the records of my past education
and compiling my work and community-service report.
Corresponding with my former school and putting things
down on paper seemed to do something for me psychologically,
and later I realized what it was. It was a form of making
amends, only this time the amends were to myself.
I turned in my folder, fully expecting
to be granted enough credits based on my college work
and community service. After all, I had attended college
for a year, which I assumed would be convertible into
high-school credits. I had been very active in community-service
work and had a responsible executive position in a local
industry. I had also passed the General Educational
Development tests with a high score back in 1947. Surely
all this would be enough for graduation.
It was not. One evening, the principal
called me in and pointed out that I had earned only
four of the twenty-four credits needed for graduation
when I attended school back in 1940 and 1941. They could
give me a maximum of only eight for my outside experience,
and college credits were not convertible. Thus I would
have to take a special set of educational-development
tests in an attempt to gain the needed credit.
I had been afraid of this, but when
I finally accepted the fact that I would have to take
the tests, I wanted to get them done in one evening--impatience
again. The young teacher who administered the four examinations
forced me to divide the tests between two evenings,
and then refused to give me the results immediately
after the last one was completed. "You'll hear
from us by mail," he told me, apparently indifferent
to the effect he might have been having on my vestigial
pride and resentment. Two days later, however, I had
my reward: a letter from the principal advising that
I had earned all the sixteen credits possible from the
tests and that they were being added to my transcript.
I was on the home stretch.
Something else had been happening during
the weeks I attended the adult high school. I had acquired
a form of school pride, and began to look forward to
seeing the other adults in the class and joining them
for the 8:30 PM coffee break on Thursday evenings. It
was a lot like AA, people getting together to solve
their common problem, only in this case the common problem
concerned education. Everybody seemed to be enjoying
the school immensely, and a number of the adult students
were performing at a high level. I became convinced
that age is no barrier to learning; if anything, the
adults have more experience to help them in the educational
We had our school dance in April, with
more than 200 persons attending. The music was supplied
by the youngsters in the band at Jackson High School,
and they deferred to our years by playing the songs
of the 1940's and 1950's. I had missed the experience
of a senior prom, but now I made up for it by getting
a baby-sitter for our three small boys and taking my
"best girl" to the adult-high-school dance.
My wife also attended the commencement dinner with me.
Seated next to us was one of my classmates from American
Government, with her husband and four children. Her
oldest daughter, already a high-school junior, was as
proud as anybody when her mother was handed her diploma
by the president of the school board.
There were a number of other unexpected
surprises coming out of the graduation experience. I
received a half-dozen congratulatory cards from friends,
and one woman even sent me a graduation gift. I was
also asked to attend the graduation breakfast at church,
and sat up front with the young people who were graduating
from local high schools and colleges; afterwards, a
man told me that this example had strengthened his own
resolve to earn a high-school diploma. And isn't that
like AA! Just give yourself a break, do the right thing
for a change, and darned if you won't help somebody
else when you least expect to!