DADE CITY — Maria Romero remembers it well.
She was 17, pregnant and not willing to return to her senior year of high school.
"I was embarrassed to go back," she recalls. "I shouldn't have been pregnant at 17. I should have been finishing high school."
For nearly two decades, Romero never went back. Not after her first son, or her second, or her third.
She worked in a bodega in Brooklyn. She ran numbers for a bookie. She hooked up and broke up with men who landed in prison.
"I made wrong choices," Romero admits. "But I had to put food on the table."
And somehow she got by, relying on others and rarely having to use her minimal skills.
Things fell apart when Romero's fiance died, about three years ago.
"I had no direction," she says. "So I came down here."
She is referring to Pasco County, where she has family.
But they had no place to put her up. So upon her arrival, Romero and her boys became homeless. She calls it her "rock bottom."
Through the good graces of the Ridge Christian Center, and then the Catholic diocese, Romero found a place to live. But part of the deal was Romero's agreement to get on the road to self-sufficiency.
"At first, I didn't want to go to school," she says.
She was in her late 30s, had three kids and had not been inside a classroom in years.
Instead, she looked for a job through Career Central. Romero calls the effort a disaster.
"I was never called back. Never. That was because I either didn't have the experience or the level of education that was required for the job," she recalls. "That was when I said I needed to go back to school."
Sticking with it
With some trepidation, she enrolled in adult education courses at Moore-Mickens Education Center. She's never been good at math, and she hates to fail. So she thought for a while about choosing to walk away.
But her life coach and her teacher encouraged Romero to stick it out.
"When she came in, she was very down and didn't think she could do anything," said social worker Tomi Steinruck, the housing manager and life coach for Catholic Charities apartments, where Romero lives.
"She would come in like the phantom, just come in, do work and leave," teacher Stephanie Polk adds.
"She wouldn't allow a relationship to form with anyone. But once she decided to build a relationship with those of us in the classroom and even some of the students, it helped her stay. It changed her, too."
After she passed all of the GED exam except the math section, she started to shine.
"Finally, she decided she was ready," Polk says.
So she buckled down, learned the math (which she still freaks out about), and earned her high school diploma at age 39, about two years after she started. She gave the commencement speech at the school district's recent east side adult graduation ceremony.
"She was just impressive," School Board member Allen Altman says. "The tears were rolling."
Romero now attends Pasco-Hernando Community College. She's starting small, with courses in pre-algebra and writing. But eventually she hopes to become a social worker. She's learned not to be afraid to ask for help, and that success is possible. And she looks forward to using all her experiences to help teens who are like she once was.
"There's a lot of kids lost today, and I've got kids of my own," she says.
"I try to tell them, 'Look at me. Try not to make the mistakes I have made.' I want them to do better."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.