Scott Zilius skirted the truth on job applications. Sometimes he lied when people asked.
What year did you graduate, man?
It was easier to say "1989" than explain, "I didn't."
For years, Zilius, 37, resolved to go back to school. But the Clearwater resident was making good money fixing air conditioners in paradise. There was no hurry.
Then, bam. His work van was rear-ended. In the split second it took to herniate a disc in Zilius' back, his career was over. Now school wasn't a choice.
But to peel off one embarrassing label, Zilius had to paste on another.
• • •
We all know the knock on people who pass GED tests. Slackers. Losers.
Comedian Chris Rock calls the General Educational Development test the Good Enough Diploma.
For years, Florida has been accused of "padding" its graduation rates because it includes people earning high school diplomas after passing a GED test. Last month, it was Pinellas' turn for scrutiny. Its long-stagnant grad rate took a turn for the better because of a sudden spike in GED recipients.
It's true: Studies show many GED recipients don't fare much better in the job market than high school dropouts. There are good arguments for why GED recipients shouldn't be included in graduation rates. There also is a case to be made for making the GED harder.
But it's also true that education is a minefield for sweeping generalizations.
Sometimes the G in GED stands for Gumption.
• • •
Zilius was 17 when he moved out. His father had just died. He had a girlfriend.
Soon he quit school. Like millions of other dropouts, he says he felt bored. And overlooked.
"Even though I was struggling, no one seemed to really care," he says, admitting to long hair and a penchant for Metallica T-shirts. "No one said, 'Stick to it.' "
Now short-haired and even-keeled, Zilius says he got lucky. He found a good job, a trade that eventually paid him nearly $60,000 a year. He started a family.
The accident in 2006 forced him to start from scratch.
In GED classes at St. Petersburg College, he met a lot of people like himself — people who knew they couldn't earn a college degree, or realize their dreams, without getting a high school diploma first.
"They have a different level of motivation," says Kathleen Griffin, associate provost of SPC's Clearwater campus and a proud parent of a GED recipient. "Many of them turn out be our best students."
The state Department of Education did not have a breakdown of GED earners by age. But it's a safe bet most are not teens.
In 2007, 2,588 Pinellas residents were awarded GED diplomas, compared to 5,738 who earned traditional ones. But only 98 of them counted toward the district's graduation rate, which means they passed the GED test within four years of entering ninth grade.
The rest of them may have been too old to help the district's bottom line. But some of them vastly improved their own.
Zilius took the GED test in the spring and got the result by mail a few weeks later. He immediately scanned the image into his computer and sent it to Illinois.
Mom, so happy, hung the diploma on the fridge.
• • •
Samantha Fenwick knows all about the stigma.
"People think if you got a GED, there must be something wrong with you, or you did something wrong," she says.
Fenwick, 27, is a GED recipient. She's a bartender. She was also the keynote speaker this month when SPC honored Pinellas residents who, like Zilius, scored high on their GED tests.
(The GED gauges how well its test-takers do relative to a statistically representative sample of graduating seniors. Those who pass score better than 40 percent of those seniors. Those honored by SPC scored better than 90 percent.)
Fenwick was raised by a single mother. She attended more than 20 public schools.
Those aren't excuses, she says. Just facts.
There's more than one path to success, she says.
Fenwick earned her associate's degree from SPC this month. She has applied to a half-dozen universities, including Harvard, Stanford and Columbia. She's not sure what to make of her chances of landing in the Ivy League, but she says she won't ever know unless she tries.
Wherever she ends up, she plans to major in something interdisciplinary, something akin to international relations.
She calls it World Saving 101.
• • •
In the fall, Zilius took courses in computer science. He cracked the books as soon as he woke. He toiled until 2 a.m.
"It really was taxing," says Zilius, who came a letter shy of straight A's. "Especially for not being in school as long as I had."
Zilius says he was careful never to vent about homework in front of his kids. Brooke is 3. Brendan is 18 months. He knows they're absorbing his every move.
At the ceremony, they watched him smile as he was handed his diploma.
They don't know what a GED is, Zilius says.
But they're beginning to know just how important school is.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.