KENNETH CITY — Peg Roberts had just returned from summer vacation when one of her GED graduates walked into her classroom.
Derek Wilson, a 37-year-old late bloomer who recently passed the GED test and immediately enrolled at St. Petersburg College, wanted to thank her.
He handed her $70.
Roberts started to refuse. Teachers can't take money from students.
No, Wilson told Roberts. It's a donation for a student who can't afford the $70 GED fee.
Roberts wanted to cry.
"It blew me away," said the Dixie Hollins Adult Education Center teacher. "I've been here for 11 years and no one has ever done anything like that."
She sat down and wrote a letter to the St. Petersburg Times: "Because of Derek's selfless generosity another student can take his/her GED test and move forward with life."
But she left out an important part of the story.
• • •
Wilson was confused. A reporter wanted to interview him for what?
"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I think it's a wonderful thing that my $70 is going to help someone. But it's not like I pulled a drowning kid from a pool."
Wilson understands the significance of finally getting a diploma. As an "120-pound Irish kid" attending high school in a rough part of south Baltimore, Wilson found himself getting picked on constantly. Fights were a regular part of his day. By 16, he'd had enough, and his teachers had had enough of him. He was kicked out his junior year.
"I had a full-time job less than 24 hours after leaving," Wilson said. "And I never looked back, never even thought about it."
He worked various handyman jobs, mainly specializing in heating and air-conditioning. In the last year, he started getting ideas about going to college and changing careers. He thought it would be good for him and his girlfriend to start fresh. Florida seemed like a good place for an air-conditioning specialist.
But Wilson found jobs were scarce in St. Petersburg. So he poured himself into school. He tried taking the General Educational Development test years ago but failed the math portion. He signed up for Roberts' class in April and took the test in May.
His diploma arrived in the mail over the summer and he enrolled at St. Petersburg College, aiming for a degree in emergency management. Maybe he could work for FEMA or homeland security.
When fall classes began, Wilson took a copy of his diploma to Roberts so she could display it on her wall with the others. He also took $70 for her, an act of kindness he had no idea would set off a series of thank-you letters from the school, tears, calls from a local newspaper.
"To be honest, this just seemed like good manners," Wilson said. "I can't believe I'm the first student to ever do this."
And besides, Wilson said, he got the idea from watching Roberts.
"She's your story," Wilson told a reporter. "Not me."
• • •
Roberts loves her job. In her students, most people see high school dropouts. She sees bright people who work hard to pay bills but never quite had the support they needed as kids.
So it breaks her heart when they come to her class, ask for help, study, are ready for the test, and then … their car breaks down. Or an electric bill is overdue. Or some other expense forces them to put off the $70 test.
For a month, Wilson watched Roberts pleading with students not to delay taking the test. Some qualify for financial aid, but many do not. Wilson said he often heard Roberts talking quietly to a student, asking: "Maybe if you can get your mom or uncle to lend you $50?" or "Maybe your mom can talk to your dad?"
But often Roberts would reach into her wallet. Wilson said he saw her give at least seven students money.
"All GED teachers do it," said Kathy Paeplow, a Dixie Hollins adult center administrator. "It's not uncommon for a student to be just $10 or $12 short, and it's a big reason students put it off and put it off."
It seems like a small price to help someone's future along. But they've never had a former student do it.
• • •
Crystal Rioux grew up with her mom and sister, who moved around a lot because of "money and personal issues," she said. She went to 12 elementary schools and six middle schools, and she thinks that may be why she was never very good at math and spelling.
When she was 16, she got her first job at Auntie Anne's Pretzels at Tyrone Square Mall. She began losing interest in school and began working there full time. Her mother and mother's boyfriend were struggling to pay the bills so she moved in with a family friend.
She dropped out of school in the middle of her senior year. "I just lost my drive," she said. She still works at Auntie Anne's Pretzels at 19 going on 20.
She doesn't love her job, she said. She doesn't like the mall and she doesn't like pretzels.
She'd really like to be a pastry chef, but first needs a high school diploma. She has been attending Roberts' GED classes for about a month and is ready to take the test. But between her Jeep payment and other bills, coming up with the testing fee will be tough.
So she's going to get Wilson's $70 scholarship, Roberts said. Rioux said she is extremely grateful and plans to take the test this month.
"This young woman is going to make something of herself," Roberts said. But there's something else she hopes Rioux will do.
"I have no doubt," Roberts said, "that she'll come back and pay it forward."
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.