She’s had a hard life. I can tell. Her skin is rough, she’s got wiry brown hair, and if I’m not mistaken, false teeth.
She’s on class break, standing on the sidewalk. She offers me a smoke. I decline.
The closest I’ve ever come to being a smoker was sitting with my grandaddy while he lit his pipe.
I ask her why she’s here.
She flicks her lighter and tells me, “Because I’m a flunky.”
Her first marriage ended when her husband got hooked on painkillers. One day, she found him unconscious. He almost overdosed. That’s when her life changed.
She took her kids and left.
“I tried to find a good job,” she says. “But there ain’t good jobs out there for flunky losers, that’s something I learned real fast.”
The first thing you should know: she’s no flunky. In fact, she’s the opposite. I don’t know her, but I know her sort. She descends from a long line of South Alabamians who work like mutts.
“Two days after I left him,” she says. “I signed up to take GED prep classes.”
School was hard. Hours were late. She was no spring chicken, and working a day-job makes a body tired. To make matters worse, she had a bad instructor.
“He was a jerk,” she remarks. “He talked too fast, and didn’t care if we understood things.”
So, she took charge. She self-taught. Once she’d learned the material, she wandered from desk to desk, helping others diagram sentences, memorize multiplication, and solve for X.
“Listen,” she says “That test is tough, took eight hours to finish.”
“Had to break mine up into two days. I thought for sure I’d failed. I flat-out cried when they gave me my graduation slip.”
Her eyes glaze.
So do mine. All that smoke.
“I didn’t think paper would matter so much,” she says. “But it was like, I mean, when you grow up thinking you’re dumb, suddenly they say you ain’t…”
So, she began taking classes at the community college. It was a long road. Sometimes, she found herself hustling two jobs just to afford daycare and groceries.
That was a long time ago.
She’s passing middle age now. But here she is, still at school in the dark. Smoking on break. And she still tells this story to anyone who listens.
I ask what she does for a living.
“Me? Guess you could say I tell people they ain’t stupid, no matter how they been raised.”
That’s the long version of her job description.
Her students just call her the GED instructor.