In 1931, during the Great Depression, my dad, though only in the seventh grade, dropped out of school. In spite of his aptitude toward math and in spite of his teacher visiting his parents’ home and begging them to allow him to stay in school, the decision was a forgone conclusion. Dad was the fourteenth of fifteen children living with parents in the farmland of Western Oklahoma, and for the family to stay afloat financially it was necessary for the children to contribute their fair share of labor for the family good. So dad went to work farming at the age of fourteen.
His story is not an uncommon one from those depression years. Families lived from hand to mouth, and food on the table today was much more valued than an education in the future. And yet the children of those years survived, and learned valuable lessons concerning hard work and thrift. To many, the hard times did not end until the beginning of the United States involvement in the Second World War in 1941. Overnight the men went off to war, and the women went off to the factories to manufacture the tools of combat. And education for many was put on the back burner “for the duration.”
With the war’s end, disarmament of the armed forces rapidly flooded the job market with young men and women who had only a few months earlier been in the thick of combat. Older, wiser, perhaps more jaded in their outlooks about life, they nevertheless recognized the value of further education and what it could contribute to a more financially comfortable future. However, they were trapped by their own maturity. Unable to return to the high schools from which many had dropped out to enlist, and unable to enroll in colleges because of the missing high school diplomas, these veterans were trapped in educational limbo until the federal government came to the rescue with the creation of the certificate of General Education Development…more commonly known today as the GED. The GED battery of tests was actually developed in 1942 to help the early returning World War II veterans, but the demand for the tests skyrocketed when the war ended in 1945. In 1947, the GED exams became available for civilians which effectively gave anyone who had left public school for any reason an opportunity for a second chance to complete or continue their education.
With the opportunity for continuing education, many young people developed their professional skills and were successful in obtaining well paying, desirable jobs in the open market. Others, however, chose more traditional jobs which did not require an education but simply strong backs and willing minds. And in the America of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 60s there were plenty of those kinds of jobs available. In the area of Texas where I live which is heavily populated with oil refineries, chemical plants, and manufacturing facilities, many a young man, tired of the drudgeries of high school with homework and boring classes, opted to drop out and go to work for the local refinery, and many of these young men put in their forty years and retired, having lived successful lives.
As America moved into the 70s and 80s, however, the job market experienced a dramatic metamorphosis. Computers, electronics, and sophisticated machinery were developed which required, not strong backs, but strong minds to operate, and as a result America witnessed a decrease in the labor-intensive jobs of the past. Many were exported to countries where manual labor is much more cheaply purchased, and as a result, many young people today, though willing in heart, mind, and body to work, are having great difficulty locating gainful employment if they do not have the educational clout on their application. Sometimes this hard lesson of life is learned after they have already dropped out of school due to various personal reasons. The trend toward more educationally demanding, technical jobs continues to this day. In addition, even those who were happily employed at an early age because they dropped out of school are finding that they are now bumping up against a promotional ceiling because the position they desire requires a certificate of further education.
About ten years ago, I began teaching for Harris County Department of Education, Adult Education Division as a GED instructor. To be perfectly honest, when I began work I knew very little about the workings of GED; I only knew that I was familiar with the material which needed to be taught, which was primarily high school level math, language, and reading. Besides being a public school teacher, I have taught such courses for real estate and insurance licensing schools since the early 80s, so I knew I was familiar with the product. I quickly learned, however, that the GED student was a different challenge compared to the former students I had experienced. All the students studying for their insurance or real estate licenses were excited about reaching for new goals. With the gleam of a new profession in their eyes, they sat attentively with an impatience to get their classes over so they could take off to new horizons.
The GED student, however, first walks into the classroom acknowledging that he/she has already made one mistake in life…namely dropping out of school. With that acknowledgement comes a touch of embarrassment and reduction in self esteem. In my mind, it is the mission of the GED teacher to accomplish two tasks: first is simply to give the student the educational wherewithal to pass the GED test, but second, and perhaps more importantly, to offer to the student the opportunity to recapture the enthusiasm for life, to forget the mistakes of the past, and to anticipate the challenges of the future.
There is no “typical” GED student. Coming from all walks of life, ethnicity, economic status, and region, they are a cross section of America, representing sometimes the best and the worst. But out of their diversity comes a common goal, and that is to better themselves. The objective may be purely a monetary goal through a job promotion, or it may be the first step toward college and a profession, or it may be simply a matter of self esteem.
One of my most memorable experiences since becoming a GED teacher involved my oldest student. She told me she was sixty two years old and did not need the GED. Her husband was a successful businessman, her children and grandchildren were grown, and they had no financial worries. But she told me she had married young and always regretted not getting her high school diploma. She worked hard in my class, and I will always remember the day when I picked up my ringing phone and heard a voice screaming, “I got it! I got it!” She had passed her GED exams. These are the moments teachers live for.
The Adult Education Department of Harris County Department of Education has grown exponentially in the last few years. I have been privileged to be a small part of its outreach. Though we teachers classify ourselves as “GED” or “ESL,” the fact of the matter is our true mission is to be second chance facilitators for those who truly need a second chance.