Somewhere in South Carolina. A rundown seafood joint. The kind of place that serves oysters on the half shell.
I’m sitting at the bar, eating Captain’s Wafers, waiting for my food.
The view is astounding. The salt marshes go on for miles, only interrupted by the sabal palms.
The beer is cheap, and cold enough to crack your fillings. The cocktail sauce is free.
The woman behind the bar looks happy tonight. She is late-middle-aged, and silver haired. She missing more than a few teeth. But it doesn’t affect her beauty. She bounces behind the bar with springy feet.
I finally ask, “Why are you so happy?”
She leans onto the bar. “Guess,” she says.
“You won the powerball?”
She shakes her head. “Guess again.”
She laughs. “Honey, that ship sailed a long dadgum time ago.”
Only she doesn’t say “dadgum.”
“I’m happy,” she says, “‘cause I’m gonna graduate.”
“Graduate from what?”
“High school. My daughter and I just took the GED test. And we passed it. Passed it clean.”
The woman looks at me and smiles a her tooth at me. And I’m smiling my less-than-optimal dental work at her, too.
Because, you see, sitting before her is a guy who was a dropout, just like her.
“I got pregnant when I was in ninth grade,” she goes on. “Parents kicked me out, I had to start working. But I ain’t sorry. I got a good daughter out of the deal, I married a dadgum good man.
“When you’re a kid, it’s easy to drop out. Your little teenage brain only thinks about the here and now. If only I had listened to the adults in my life.”
I nod. Because I’m picking up what she’s laying down.
“But, hey, I don’t regret my life choices,” she adds. “They made me who I am today.”
Another nod from the choir.
She uses a church key to pop the top of my PBR.
“But all these years,” she says, “I felt like something was missing. Like there’s a piece of me that ain’t been tapped yet. You know?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I think I do.”
She tells her story well. Her daughter followed the same life path her mother blazed. Her daughter got pregnant. Dropped out. Same old dog and pony show.
But it was her daughter who started the educational ball rolling.
Her daughter turned 30 this year and enrolled in an in-person GED preparation class. When she told her mother the news, her mother started crying.
“My daughter tole me she wanted to go into medicine once she got her GED. I was so proud of my kid. So dadgum proud.”
They attended night classes together. After they got off work. Husbands babysat grandbabies.
Mother and daughter attended class, multiple times each week, just to learn all about sentence diagrams, the cosine, and who exactly Paul Revere was.
But that was just the beginning. Earning a GED is hard. Bone hard.
What they don’t tell you is that getting your GED is like earning six high-school diplomas at once. The amount of material you have to memorize is borderline ridiculous.
Don’t ask me how I know this.
“Didn’t think we were going to pass,” says the woman. “Thought to myself, ‘Oh, man, I ain’t going to make it.’
“But I just prayed over and over, I said, ‘God, if I don’t pass this test, fine, but let my daughter pass.’”
When the woman received the confirmation email with her score, she had received a 164. A passable grade. Her daughter scored even higher.
The woman smiles when she tells me this.
I ask the woman what she’s going to do now that she is a proper high-school grad.
She laughs. “Nothing, honey. I like my life, don’t want to change nothing. I took that test for me. For my sense of pride.
“I guess I did it because I wanted my kids to look back and say, ‘See, my mom’s a smart woman. People were wrong about her. Our mom ain’t stupid.’”
You dadgum sure ain’t.