December 20, 2013 10:05:39 AM
Each winter and spring, as graduates file into arenas for commencement exercises at colleges and universities across the country, we are awed by a select group of graduates whose achievements stand apart from their peers. Cords, sashes and medallions are the visible trappings of Latin phrases such as cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude and we cannot help but be inspired by them and stand in awe of their accomplishments.
Thursday evening at the Nissan Auditorium on the MUW campus, 35 people filed across the stage in ceremony to accept their GED diplomas from the Greater Columbus Learning Center.
No one, not even among those who walked in cap and gowns Thursday, would suggest that earning a GED is equal to those who have graduated with high honors from universities.
But in another sense, who is to say that some of these GED recipients, when viewed in the full context of their lives, have not achieved more than those who society generally celebrates as the brightest and the best?
Most of those graduates whose gowns are heavy with sashes, cords and medallions grew up in nurturing environments, with parents who recognized the value of an education and provided them with all the necessary elements for success.
For many of Thursday's GED recipients, their circumstances could scarcely be less conducive to academic achievement. Examples were everywhere you looked. There was 21-year-old Byron Sewell, whose supporters included a group of people who came together to adopt him as a personal project. "When we found him, he was living in an abandoned apartment complex," said Robert Gibson. "My wife, who is the outreach director at the YMCA, had noticed him one day when our church was serving meals to the poor. He looked familiar to her, so she started talking to him. It turned out, years earlier, he had gone to school with our boys. A group of people from the YMCA, our church and other people sort of took him under our wing, but he did the work. We are so proud of him."
Sewell's story emphasizes an interesting point: Often the greatest mission work can be performed in our own backyard. What prevents any group of folks from coming together, identifying a young person who needs a hand and helping that person toward a real chance in life?
Then there was Helen Green, whose demeanor Thursday could best be described as glowing.
Now 43, Green dropped out of school as a ninth-grader when her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She felt lost, hopeless.
"I ran wild, having babies, being crazy, until God sat me down," she said.
By age 38, she had nine children and zero hope.
"I had given up on everything," she said.
Somewhere a spark of hope began to flicker. She started classes at the Greater Columbus Learning Center, but dropped out after a year. She returned a year later. Thursday, she had reached a milestone.
"Oh, I can't tell you how much this has meant," she said, her eyes glowing with optimism. "It's just a GED, I know, but it's so much more to me. It's given me confidence, a belief in myself that I never had, not ever. "
Green plans to continue her studies at EMCC and hopes to open her own nail salon someday. She will, too. Bet on it.
At 59, Linda Whitten was the oldest member of Thursday's graduation class.
She dropped out of school at age 15, against her parents' wishes.
"I wouldn't listen," she said. "I thought I didn't need an education to get a job. I just didn't see the value in it."
She may not have listened to her parents, but she did listen to her two sons.
"They said, "mom, what would you say if it was one of us that wanted to drop out of school?' That got me thinking."
She started classes GED classes in 2002, got discouraged and quit after a year, but returned last year.
"It's never too late, right?' she said. "I know there are young people out there looking for work. But 59-year-olds need work, too. All I can say is that if there is anybody who needs someone who will work hard, be reliable, be honest, that's what they'll get in me."
No, the people who walked across the Nissan Auditorium stage Thursday may not gone as far as those honor graduates from those prestigious universities.
But many of them have traveled a far greater distance.
And that is worthy of our admiration.