Lucy Shulman, ESOL Instructor/HiSET Lab Assistant Portland Adult Education
A General Education Diploma, or GED (equivalent to the HiSET used in Maine), is often associated with failure. An alternative high school credential is seen as a bronze medal, a consolation prize. “Anyone can finish high school,” some people think. “Why didn’t she?”
So when I dropped out of my New York high school at 17 due to chronic illness, I felt like my life was over. In the unhappy few years that followed, that stigma eroded my confidence. I’d been defeated by my own limitations, disconnected from my generation. I felt invisible, like my life was passing me by.
The stigma associated with GED/HiSET can paint even those who support such students with the same brush. It follows that adult education is a low-prestige occupation – but adult ed teachers tend to be fanatically devoted to the cause.
“The cause” is emphatically not bronze medals. Our business at Portland Adult Education (PAE) is opportunities. It’s providing second chances to people who’ve had tough lives.
But at PAE no one intrudes into your past struggles. It’s part of the local culture not to intrude. Where you come from is less relevant than what you’re doing now.
I first attended PAE as a student in 2013. I had goals, and I was ready to enter the world again. But five years of disability had left me with low self-esteem, and what little pride I had left manifested as a toxic, superior attitude.
“They don’t understand,” I thought bitterly about my new school. “My circumstances are different. I’m not one of them.”
However, I was grateful, following my long isolation, that anyone was willing to talk to me. My first day at PAE, my classmates quickly reached out. One immigrant woman was pursuing her education to set a good example for her children. Another recent immigrant carried her mini-Scrabble in her school bag, and often asked the rest of us to play. PAE was still setting up at their new location, so my desk mate – a confident Burundian who loved yard sales – determinedly foraged for kitchen equipment for the school. No one would drink incompetently brewed tea on her watch.
As time passed, my new community provided scaffolding for building new confidence. The authentic connections I made loaned me strength to rebuild my self-respect. My superficial pride seemed insignificant compared to the welcoming community to which I now belonged.
For “they” were not “they,” but “we.” I was not separate, but part of the whole. Nothing divided us other than the locations of our births. I decided that first winter, while my new friend copied Scrabble words into her notebook and I sipped strong green tea, that someday, when I was able, I would try to give something back.
The growth mindset I learned at PAE carried me through college, employment, international adventures, and home again. Nine years later, the once-empty building is bursting with life. An eclectic assortment of donated items is stashed in the basement, away from judgmental eyes. Everyone shares what they can, which makes it easier to take what they need. All three floors of the building are full of multilingual notices promoting resources of all sorts. No accomplishment is too small to celebrate, no need is too small to address.
I’m bursting with life, too. When I returned to PAE as a teacher, I realized that I like who I’ve become. I’m strong enough to support others, and secure enough in my own worth to treat them with respect. I’m humbled by the opportunity to fulfill the promise I made all those years ago.
My GED wasn’t the end of my story, but the beginning. It reminds me, as an educator, to never constrain my students with a single definition of success. At work, I display my certificate proudly, so those most in need of solidarity see what we have in common: not a begrudging token, but a point of pride. I hope to pass on the essential lesson that PAE continues to teach.
We are strong. We are valuable. We can live the lives we choose to live, not just those prescribed for us. We will thrive, not on the margins, but in the light.