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Short Stories: Dropping Out of High School

My family moved a lot during the first eighteen years of my life, and I attended nine different schools in three states. The summer before my eighth-grade year, my dad moved us from Deshler, Ohio to Findlay, from a small rural school to one of the largest public schools in the state. My parents divorced after fifteen years of marriage in the spring of my ninth-grade year. Less than a year later, Dad sold most of our worldly belongings and moved us to Tucson, Arizona. I would later learn that Dad was running and hiding from creditors. They eventually traced him to Arizona and repossessed both of our automobiles.

After completing my tenth-grade school year in Arizona, I returned to my mom’s home in Bryan, Ohio, planning to enroll in classes at Bryan High School. I really missed my friends and church in Findlay. I expressed this yearning to my youth pastor, Bruce Turner, (please see Dear Bruce Turner) and he floated the idea of me moving to Findlay and living with one of the families in the church. God, or so I thought at the time, put everything in motion, and in short order I found myself living with Bob and Bonnie Bolander — a young couple at Trinity Baptist Church. My stay was short-lived. Bruce Turner found another home for me to stay; that of Gladys Canterberry.

To provide insurance for me and a monthly check to Gladys for keeping me, I was made a ward of court. Every day I would ride my three-speed bike to Findlay High School, attending classes from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. I would then hop on my bike and ride to Bill Knapp’s (a chain family restaurant) where I worked the first of two shifts bussing tables. I worked the lunch shift, took a two-hour break, and then worked the dinner shift. Afterward, I would ride back to Gladys’ house and call it a night. When the weather was bad, I would either walk or take a cab. Regardless, I worked three or four days while carrying a full load of classes. Throw in church, sports, and youth group events, and I was a busy boy. Yet, I never missed a day of school or work.

In May of 1974, I decided I wanted to move back to my mom’s home. I couldn’t legally do so because I was a ward of the state. I spent several weeks planning my escape, and finally, one week before the end of the school year, Mom drove the fifty-five miles from Bryan to Findlay, picked me up, and then we returned to her home. Gladys was livid. She threatened me (and my mother) with arrest if I didn’t immediately return to Findlay. I told her I wasn’t coming back; that I wanted to live with my mom. More threats were uttered, I hung up, and that was that. I wasn’t arrested, but I was very much on my own. By this time, my younger siblings had moved from Arizona to Ohio and were also living with Mom.

Mom had serious mental health problems. Six months after I returned to her home, she had a total breakdown and was involuntarily placed in the state psychiatric hospital in Toledo. My siblings and I were on our own. Dad got wind that we were without parental supervision and drove from Arizona to retrieve us. While I was powerless in the moment, being a minor, I have always felt bad about moving away while Mom was in the hospital. Dad did the right thing, but I can only imagine how Mom felt coming home only to find her children (and money and food stamps) were gone.

After moving back to Bryan, Mom and I went to Bryan High School so I could enroll for my senior year. Bryan requested my records from Findlay, finding out that the school had not given me any credits for my junior year. Why? Evidently, I missed some final exams. I couldn’t retake them, so no credits for eleventh grade. I would have to take the eleventh grade again.

Mom tried to straighten the matter out, even consulting a lawyer. He told her that what Findlay was doing was wrong, but it would take a lot of time and money to fix my record. We had plenty of time, but no money. Knowing this, he suggested I retake eleventh grade.

I was angry, to say the least. I mean really, really, really, red-hair-on-fire angry. During this time, my best friend Dave dropped out of high school. I thought, “That’s exactly what I am going to do.” I informed my mom that I was dropping out of high school. She, of course, exploded, telling me, “Oh no you’re not!” Having just turned seventeen, I knew Mom was all bark and no bite. Eventually, she relented and I dropped out of school.

Being a “dropout” — what an ugly word we use to disparage people who fail to meet societal norms — never materially affected me. I was always able to find employment. Once I had three years of college under my belt, prospective employers quit asking about me dropping out of high school.

In 2002, at the age of forty-five, I decided to get my GED. I was confident that I could pass the exam without taking classes. The GED exam, at the time, took place over several days. On my first day, I checked in for the exam only to have the teacher question whether I should take the test. He knew I hadn’t taken the GED class, so I suspect he thought I would spectacularly fail. I smiled and told him I would be fine.

I passed with flying colors. Higher math questions posed a bit of an issue, but the rest of the questions were no problem for me. Not only that, I was generally the first person to finish his test. (Either you know it or you don’t, right?) The teacher’s face expressed surprise. I so wanted to tell him that it is not wise to judge people you do not know; that I had been doing academic work for thirty years. I may have grown up in poverty, but my mind was rich with knowledge gleaned from books and school. I may have dropped out of high school, but that doesn’t mean I was academically deficient. I was a voracious reader thanks to Mom’s continued reminders to read! Of course, these reminders often came like this: “Butch, get out of my hair. Go read a book!” 🙂

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    “Butch, go read a book” – one of the most useful things a parent could say! As a fellow bookworm, I appreciate that so much!

    My grandma got her GED as an adult too. She had been a star student, top of her 8th grade graduating class, but due to severe anemia she dropped out of high school in 10th grade. Soon after she got married at age 16 and had a child at age 17. Going back to school wasn’t in the cards. But she continued to be a bookworm and sat for the GED as an adult. As a stupid kid, I asked her why she bothered. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Because I wanted to.” That was a good enough reason!

    I guess Bruce wanted to as well, and that’s a good enough reason!

    • Avatar

      I was wondering why do it at age 45? Your grandma’s answer is probably as good as any. But I get it too, I often think about retaking one of the standardized tests I took for college. My score was really high in the science section and high in the others, but I always felt like I could have done better if I had managed my time better. I thought it might be a hoot to take it again. So I get the yearning to tick a box. I feel it myself.

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    Karuna Gal

    Bruce, your life story impresses me to no end. In spite of the bad hand that life’s dealt you, you’ve carried on with strength and courage. And Polly’s life is impressive as well. Keep it up! Your experiences and writing are helping and inspiring countless people all over the world. 👏👏👏

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    Barbara L. Jackson

    Congratulations on passing your GED and with taking care of yourself. I dropped out of university the first time I was in higher education because my grades in physics were not good enough to get into grad school. Later I took night classes in Information Technology and got a BA in that at age 30. I was already working as a computer programmer.

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    Geez Bruce, I thought my life story was unlikely and then you report having similar experiences. I dropped out of 9th grade (sounds better than expelled). I was told I could not attend Bryan High because I was a ward of the court. Sounds illegal but my parents weren’t able to help themselves let alone me, and I was on my own. Delinquency, foster homes, frequent moving, troubled parents, I had it all. I took the GED unprepared at 29 Y/O and killed it, went on to Tri-State in Angola where I made the Deans list, (all but that first quarter which nearly killed me).
    Eventually got into law school and became a member of the California State Bar and still am. Theres much more to tell that would make it all seem even more unlikely but I’ll gloss over it. Suffice to say I was more fortunate than my friends. Many attended reform school and prison and died young. One crony stuck up the Brunersburg store. Two stuck up a gas station in Nashville. Another was notoriously on the FBI’s most wanted list for interstate flight from prosecution for some offense. He was from Pulaski and still alive in Covington KY. His name was/is Darwin B*****ter. Pulaski was one of your stops so you may recognize the name.
    The attitude about GEDs was/is not one of respect. Once in law school it came up that I had a GED, and no high school credits having dropped out of 9th grade. One seemingly normal fellow law student asked me what was I going to do about making up high school? It was a straight faced question. I’d bet he flunked out and even if not he was too dense to pass the Bar exam.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    “Butch, go read a book!” If I had kids, that is one of the first things I’d tell my kids.

    Having taught in a community college in the poorest ZIP code in the United States, I saw how, too often, people young and old are assumed to be uneducated or simply stupid (and therefore “not worth” time and resources) because they were born and raised in that ZIP code (which is just three subway stops—seven minutes—from one of the most affluent ZIP codes in the US), spoke with an accent—whether from the streets or a faraway land—or lacked the social cachet or were, ahem, a shade or two darker than those who judges. And those self-appointed adjudicators of value and competence too often believe themselves to be free of such prejudices because they took a course or a workshop.

    (I know that was a long-ass sentence and I ain’t James Joyce. I was channeling a rant and, well, sometimes one forgets the rules of sentence construction, punctuation and other proprieties under such a circumstance.)

    Bruce, you have been through so much. One thing I’ve noticed over a few years of reading your writing is that you tend not to portray yourself as someone who overcame obstacles. Rather, you reveal yourself as someone who seems to learn from experience.

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    My youngest sister-in-law expressed interest in veterinary school when she was a young teen. the guidance counselor told her she was not bright enough (we only heard about it years later. the family had moved from a district with good schools that encouraged students when husband was there to one that seemed indifferent to a shy little girl) eventually she dropped out, worked, married, had a child, went back to school and became a registered nurse. she was excellent at that job, but the stress got to her and she retired early. A neighbor of ours had also dropped out; it was only when she applied for her driver’s license that she was told she needed glasses. Of course she had difficulty reading the board! A combination of indifferent parents and oblivious teachers. (an observant kindergarden teacher told me that my daughter didn’t seem to hear well. Our doctor referred us to a specialist, problem corrected!)

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    I drop by from time to time but do not read all your stuff. You are one of the reasons for my deconversion.
    Your tale is not that different from mine. Thank you for sharing your story. I have had many people act shocked when they found out I am a HS dropout.
    And yet at 71 there is little I would change – except for all the wasted time in church and related activities.

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