I just got home from my second job, but there’s no time to kick back. I only have enough time to grab a bite to eat and kiss my wife and son goodbye. Though I’m almost 30, I’m in high school again and can’t be late for class. I dropped out of high school midway through my senior year back in 1996, not because I was lazy or some juvenile delinquent -- and not because I took or sold drugs -- but because jobs seemed a lot more real.
I’d started high school in the city of East San Jose, Calif., but early on transferred to a school in Monterey County. When I got there, I was one of the few Latinos. I remember sitting in an office surrounded by blue-eyed counselors and posters on the wall that said “Dare to Dream.” When the counselors asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I meant what I said when I answered: “I want to help people. I want to be a youth counselor.”
The room fell silent. One of the counselors looked at me and said: "There’s too much school involved for that; why don't you pick a trade?" That was not something I dreamed about, and the next few years seem blurred as I went to school, worked at jobs all night and saw a girlfriend in between.
I wasn’t a bad student. I maintained a decent grade-point average. But with what felt like no support and no real motivation of my own, I fell into the trap that a lot of young people from the old neighborhood seemed to fall in. In a funny way, I was no different from the kids who chose to sell dope or steal as a means to get by. My fix was working as hard as I could.
As my first job -- working at a movie theater -- came and went along with a lot of other nowhere jobs, I began to realize that dropping out of school had been a mistake. I remember sitting in my grandparents’ living room looking at all the graduation photos of various family members, when it hit me: I’d become another statistic. I was stuck in a daze, staring at my Uncle Tony’s picture on the wall, with “Mt. Pleasant High class of 1970” written under it, when my grandfather shook me up.
"Go back to school!" he said. That’s exactly what he’d done. My grandpa was 58 back in 1969, when he finally received his high school diploma from the San Jose High Adult Education program. He truly embraced the value of education, coming from a generation when Latinos were treated as second-class citizens and school was a privilege not to be taken for granted. He went from a poor boy who grew up in California’s Central Valley picking fruit and vegetables, to obtaining a contractor’s license and starting his own construction company. And it was his high school diploma that helped make it possible.
I tried dropping back in a couple of times after that. I took some night classes and even enrolled at San Jose City College. But it didn't last. It was hard for me getting into the school mode, since I’d been out of school for so long. I felt overwhelmed. So I kept working, and for the most part, everything seemed to be working out.
I’m now pushing 30, married with children, working two jobs I love. And -- can you believe it -- one of them is being a youth counselor. But that little piece of paper I once thought I could do without is holding me back from securing a better future. I’ve been working with a nonprofit organization as an at-risk youth counselor, and I’d be a perfect candidate for a permanent position with the school district -- if only I had the proper schooling. Achieving a high school diploma is the first step. So I’m off to night school to finish what I started. But this time I’ll do it one step at a time, with direction and a solid plan. I’m only down a few high school credits, so it wont be long before I get my diploma. Then I’m off to pursue a college education. If you’re still in high school, you might want to learn from my experience: Get it done the first time. And to those who have dropped out: Remember, it's never too late. You’re never too old to drop back into school.
David Madrid is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He also works as an editor for Silicon Valley Debug, a project of New America Media in San Jose, California.