Making the grade to graduate

I am concerned about the California High School Exit Exam. Wouldn’t it be provocative if top government officials were required to take this test and see if they could pass it?

My own personal experience with the school system provides an excellent example of why the Exit Exam is not right. My mother sent me to kindergarten. I was slow to learn and I knew I couldn’t keep up. No one in my home helped me study and learn; they just sent me to school.

The next year I went to the first grade, and they didn’t help me either. My parents just sent me and hoped the school would help me. I had to repeat the first grade.

I didn’t like school because I was such a slow learner. The teachers kept passing me until I got to the seventh grade. I was good in history — at the top of my class, but I still wasn’t getting any help. I failed the seventh grade. This was a terrific blow to my ego and I was humiliated. No one knew what was on my mind. I was 16, of legal age to quit school, and that was my plan. When it came time to start the next year, I stayed in bed. My father came into my room and told me to get ready to go to school. I was so ashamed to return to the seventh grade. My father said he didn’t care how I felt — I wasgoing back.

I passed the seventh and eighth grades because girls helped me and I fit right into this new class. My friend Brian’s mother helped us with our homework. I made an “A” in biology and “B”s in other subjects. My grades were good enough that I could play football and participate in wrestling and track. English and math were still a problem, but I managed to get through them. I got my high school diploma, but one English teacher, Mrs. Golds-boar, wanted to fail me in English. Miss Wells, my music teacher, persuaded her not to because I had the lead in the “Pirates of Penzance.” She thought that if I could succeed at that, I deserved to pass English. Her compassion enabled me to get my high school diploma.

I went into the Navy boot camp and, because I failed four weekly tests, they sent me back to another company where other sailors who had failed the tests were sent. The Navy provided a school for this company consisting of a 6-week course to help people read better. Then we were reintegrated back into regular boot camp for another grueling eight weeks. My new company commander, Mr. Williams, helped us review for the test. There were many college students in the company. I was third in my class, thanks to the help from Mr. Williams.

After the Navy, I got a job at Georgetown Hospital where I trained for a year to become a respiratory therapist. I worked at that job for three years. Then I went to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood as a respiratory therapist for one year. I then returned to Georgetown Hospital for a year. After I left Georgetown, I worked for Southern Railway as a fitness instructor and an assistant massage therapist and learned the art of massage. I worked there one year. Then I moved to the Federal City Club that President Kennedy started. Then I went back to Southern Railway and headed the therapy department for five years.

I moved to the Bay Area and, with two partners, started an ornamental ironbusiness in Hayward. It failed after a year because we needed more operating capital. I then went to the Olympic Club in San Francisco and got a job as a massage therapist. I went on to manage the department for 14 years. I set a goal to retire at 50, and by working part time in two physical therapy departments and operating my own massage business, I managed to retire at 48.

It is fair to say that my career was a success. Yet, if I had been forced to take a graduation test, I would not have gotten my diploma. The diploma got me in the door numerous times and I was able to prove myself from there. I am still learning every day, and I have the wonderful staff and my tutor at Project Read to support me.

I am writing this so that you will realize that there are more people out there like me for whom a high school diploma is critical.

Neil Mills is retired and living in The City.

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