Night Owl Gets Diploma
By Mel B.
A 1941 High-School Dropout Makes it at Last–
and Has some Fun into the Bargain
Volume 24 Issue 10
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 years ago.
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 eight weeks.
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 earned.
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 process.
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!