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For the seven or eight years or so between the time I left high school without a diploma and the time that I got my GED in 2007, every time I filled out a job application there was that dreaded "education" section. It usually looked something like this:

High School
Name of School ________  Address ________
Diploma? ▢Yes ▢No

Every time I checked "No", I knew it increased the chances that the person reviewing my application would stop right there and throw my app in the trash. If they did choose to hire me, they didn't have to worry about paying a competitive wage. Opportunity for advancement? Not for dropouts. When I finally got my GED, I thought my days of "checking the box" were finally over. Ooooooohhh, no. Not by a longshot.

The Six Dollar Manager
I became increasingly aware that a simple "X" in the "No" box would empower my employers to give me a lower wage for the same work. When I left high school, I was already working at a Giant Eagle grocery store. I became a full-time stockboy after I flunked out of high school, and was entrusted with some management duties, and I had a pizza delivery job on the side. Finally I worked my way up Frozen Foods Manager, and was given a raise, to $6.00 an hour. Yay! But for a lower management position at a grocery store, it was just a shade above minimum wage, and not enough for the work I did. They promised me more money but never delivered, so I put in a 2-week notice. They offered me a 50-cent raise to stay, but I still made more money off tips at the pizza job, so I left.

I was working at my Giant Eagle job the day my class graduated. Some of them came in afterwards to talk to friends who worked there, or just to pick up a few things. Most of them were all excited, and talked about graduating, how great it was. Yay. Woohoo. Whatever. Just leave me alone, I have shit to do. Only one person, someone I knew from the Science Club at school, sympathized with my situation. "There was a chair with your name on it at graduation", he told me. "The principal saw it and had someone take it away. I'm sorry, man." It meant a lot that someone actually realized that maybe I wouldn't be as enthused as the rest of the Class of '99 about graduation. In hindsight, it seems that the fact that all the other 18-year olds in town got a diploma but not me, is what made the owner of that Giant Eagle think he could get away with paying me next to nothing, even after a couple years there. For anyone out there who thinks paying long-time employees peanuts is a good business model: that Giant Eagle went out of business a few years later.

Workplace Safety is Overrated
Checking the "No" box for a diploma also had another meaning to employers: that I was desperate, that I would take any job or do anything. I worked at gas stations, pizza shops, beverage drive-thrus, grocery stores, and eventually factories. So they could pay me whatever low wage they wanted. At the steel factory I worked at, even though it was Union, they started me at $8.00 an hour because some obscure clause in the contract said they could. So I was moving 5 ton stacks of 24-foot steel plate, wobbling and swaying precariously above me on a crane while being supported by plate shoes that could kick out at any time. It was a scary job, but they knew I would do it for $8.00 because, hey, what gas station is gonna pay me that, right?

While making that paltry wage, I had a major accident in 2004 in which a bundle of steel bars fell on my feet, fracturing three bones in my left foot and two in my right. I was life-flighted to the hospital, and spent a few months in a wheelchair. After I was out of the wheelchair I started physical therapy and the long process of learning how to walk again.  The first thing I did when the doctor cleared me to drive was go back to the shop and say "hi" to the guys I worked with. Some of them had visited me in the hospital and called me to see how I was healing up, so I wanted them to see that I was out of the wheelchair, on crutches and hobbling down the long road to recovery.

It turned out to be a big mistake. It was great to talk to the guys, and they were glad to see me, but Herb, the owner of the shop, saw me. He gave me this big fake smile and said something about me going back to work. Herbie blew my phone up for the rest of the week, calling every day about returning for "light duty" office work. I was getting worker's comp, and I didn't think I was ready to come back. But I did it because my accident happened when I was on my loooooooong probationary period, and I knew that if I didn't come back right then, I might not have a job to come back to, or Herb would find a way to stop my worker's comp. So I made the painful ascent up the narrow, precarious metal staircase to my "office" every day to do pointless busywork. I was just barely off crutches when Herb returned me to the shop. It still hurt to walk, even to stand. But while on "light duty" I was able to bid onto a higher-paying position on the nightshift that allowed me to sit down sometimes, so it was bearable. Herb fired me a little over two years later, right after the statute of limitations for me to sue him for the accident had expired. Coincidence? Probably not.

All this mistreatment was because of one little box on a job application. One little "X" by the "No". That little box was a big red flag saying "do your worst, employers, because I have no options and no future."

Much more than just a "Good Enough Diploma"
So I was broke, unemployed, jobless, and bored. My parents bugged me about the GED, so I went down the street and took the pretest, and did pretty well. I was told that I should take the full GED as soon as possible, I did so, and got a perfect score on 3 out of 5 sections, one of the top 5 scores in Ohio that year. There was a graduation ceremony in June of '08 for all the GED graduates who passed the test that year, and I was asked to speak. My uncle also passed the test that year, so I got to graduate with him, which was awesome. I was trying to write my speech, and the word "graduation" kept popping up in my rough drafts. I asked the lady in charge of the county GED program about that. "It looks like a graduation, it feels like a graduation with caps and gowns and everything, so is it OK to call it a graduation?" She said, "Yes, it is a graduation". It was great to hear that. I'm adamant about the fact that a GED is not a "Good Enough Diploma", or something lesser than a "normal" High School Diploma, a GED is a diploma.

With that detail out of the way, I finished my speech at 4 in the morning on the last possible moment. I walked up to the podium and saw all those faces looking back at me. I also thought about the diverse group of graduates behind me. Teenagers, senior citizens, single moms, and dads who wanted to show their children that education really is important. There were English-as-a-Second-Language students who came to our shores from Asia, the Middle East, and South America to chase their fortune in the Land Of Opportunity. There was me who aced the test with ease, but also those with learning disabilities who struggled for months and even years to learn enough to pass the test. And there was my uncle, graduating with me. How cool is that? We all took many different roads, but we all earned the right to be on the stage that evening, and I was proud to be there with them.

I gave my speech, thanking my parents for setting a good example. I talked about the GED "opening the doors of employment and higher education", about the difficulties of being a dropout, and about second chances, and being able to achieve anything we set our minds to. At the end, I said that a GED is:

"...so much more than than a 'Good Enough Diploma'. We may have fallen through the cracks of standardized high school education, but we have graduated with flying colors from the School of Hard Knocks."

That got some cheers and claps from the audience. After all those years, my mom and dad finally got to see their son graduate, and as an added bonus, my dad got to see his brother graduate as well.

I don't have to check the box, but....

Fast forward to now. I'm on my 4th year in college with a 3.5 GPA. I'm far enough along that I'm looking for civil engineering co-op jobs, handing out resumes, talking to company reps at job fairs, and going to interviews. No luck so far, but I was surprised at one subject that always comes up:

"So, I see you have a GED and not a standard high school diploma. Could you explain why that is?"
"For what reasons did you choose to leave high school?"
"I'm just gonna throw it out there: Why'd you drop out?"
"You're in an engineering program at college, but don't have a high school diploma. That's interesting"

What? I do have a diploma! It says right there, from the Portage County GED program, State of Ohio. It's more than 'equivalent' to your diploma, it's the fucking same. I graduated. Period. So why is it such a big deal? I know that when they say it's "interesting" that's corporatespeak for "not good". I know it's a contributing factor as to why I haven't found a job yet, even though the letters "GED" are in the Education section of my resume right below the numbers "3.5 GPA, University of Akron". That number could be 4.0, but they'd still see me as a dropout.

"Sorry, you're just not what we're looking for."

I know I have to put on a dog-and-pony show in some ways to impress possible corporate employers, as much as I dislike corporate culture. One manager asked flat out if I would cut my long hair. Yes. I'll do what they ask, I'll do what I have to. But when they ask about my GED, I say I'm proud of it. Any other response would be a lie. Maybe I could have gotten a "regular" diploma if I worked harder way back then, or maybe not. But I have no regrets. I've worked hard to get from a menial laborer kicked like a human soccer ball from job to job, to where I am now, on the way to a Bachelor's degree in civil engineering.

It was a long road, and I won't apologize just because I started as a so-called "dropout". I had to take extra classes in math and science to "catch up", because of all the things I didn't learn in high school. If a company doesn't want to hire me because my road to college was a little different, to hell with it. That's probably not the kind of culture I want to work in anyways.

So, even though I don't have to "check the box" on my applications, I still have to "check" it verbally. Every interview, every interaction with a company rep. Every. Single. Flipping. Time. I always handle it calmly, try to give them an answer they want to hear. I got my GED to move forward and free myself from the mistakes of the past. But corporate employers always want to bring it back, to use it as a means to judge me. They always want me to explain.

"Let's talk about the 'High School' part of your resume."

{sigh.} It feels like I'm still checking that stupid little box. Again and again.

Originally posted to Broke And Unemployed on Mon Jan 30, 2012 at 09:55 AM PST.

Also republished by Retail and Workplace Pragmatists - Members and Editors, Unemployment Chronicles, Youth Kos 2.0, ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement, and Retail And Workplace Pragmatists - General.

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