WATERVILLE — Tony Bernard has some advice for people who quit school but want to return and earn their high school diplomas.
“Don’t be scared. They make you feel welcome. It’s possible. If I did it, anybody can do it. I never thought I could.”
Bernard, 40, will receive his high school diploma May 27 at Waterville Senior High School after completing his studies through Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education. He plans to march in cap and gown during an event that he never imagined would happen.
Twenty-two years ago as a high school senior, he was drinking alcohol a lot and dropped out of school.
“I went to Alaska to work for two-and-a-half to three years and worked on a fishing boat,” he said. “I worked hard and then I drank hard. I was young, I was stupid. If I could turn my life back 20 years, I would.”
After returning to Maine, he worked on and off, but couldn’t let the bottle go. It would be his downfall. He got into a motorcycle accident and later would get disability assistance.
Then, 2 1/2 years ago, he decided to turn his life around: “I got sick and smartened up.”
He quit drinking, got his driver’s license back, bought a vehicle and eight months ago enrolled in adult education classes.
“I changed my life,” he said. “You got to change the way you think. You got to put your mind to it. We’d start out with 15 people in a class and at the end of 15 weeks, there might be only six people in the class. You got to really buckle down.”
Bernard joins 63 other adult ed students expected to graduate this year, with about half of that number to march May 27 during the 7 p.m. ceremonies in Trask Auditorium at Waterville Senior High School. The event is open to the public.
The speakers will be Summer Main, a former adult ed student who was recently admitted to law school after graduating from college, and Martha Herz, another former adult ed student who graduated from Kennebec County Community College and now is attending the University of Maine at Farmington.
Most of the students, who range in age from 18 to the late 50s, will receive High School Equivalency Test credentials or HiSETs, which replaced the GEDs. The rest will receive high school diplomas.
The number of people graduating this year is high because so many people knew last year that the GED would be discontinued and wanted to complete their studies through that process, said Susan Tuthill, director of Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education.
Typically, 50 people graduate per calendar year, obtaining diplomas or equivalency test credentials, she said. That number has been consistent during the six years she has been director.
“The number is 20 to 25 percent higher for us this year than last year,” Tuthill said. “Statewide, that did impact the numbers. Thousands of people in the state wanted to get their GEDs.”
Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education includes Waterville, Winslow and Oakland schools and this year enrolled about 200 students, she said. Most students are from Waterville, Winslow, Oakland, Vassalboro, China, Belgrade, Sidney and Rome, with some enrolling from outlying towns, according to Tuthill. Classes are held at Waterville High as well as at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. The program also offers English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes free of charge four times a week.
Bernard took English, government, history and computer classes among other courses. At first, he had three-hour classes a week for 15 weeks.
“I want to better my life and get back in the community and help the community,” he said. “I want to get a job. I’m doing the right thing.”
His English teacher, Paula Raymond, remembers an anxious Bernard entering her class on his first day, feeling inadequate and afraid.
As the weeks progressed, however, he began to believe in himself and his abilities.
“Tony is smiling more now, standing taller and getting ready to graduate,” Raymond said. “It is a feat for each of our students, and we are always so happy for them when they accomplish this part of their journey. We are very proud of Tony. It is not only his academics that he had to accomplish; it was defeating his demons that many of our students have carried for so many years. Tony is one of our success stories.”
Bernard acknowledged being nervous on his first day of school. It had been so long since he had been in a classroom, but he told himself he needed to do it.
“I walked in there with a positive thought and never missed a day, and I just did what I had to do,” he said. “I surprised myself with my grades, actually, because I got mostly Bs.”
He’s hopeful after interviewing with UPS for a job. “I want to go to work and make some money,” he said. “I want things in life. I’m just hoping somebody will give me a chance.”
He said supportive teachers made a big difference in helping to boost his confidence.
“All my teachers were really great,” he said. “They all, equally, knew me, and I pretty much told them about myself. I got along with every one of them, and they all offered help.”
Tuthill said Bernard came to adult education with the credits he had earned in high school and enrolled in the classes he needed to qualify for a diploma.
“We have a strict attendance policy,” Tuthill said. “Many people who start that program don’t finish it because of missed classes. They fall through on the attendance policy. He stuck right with it. He is an older student, and he has life experience. He came in and appreciated that this second chance is really a gift. He really wanted to be there, and this credential meant so much more to him because he struggled in life without the credential.”
Tuthill said he worked hard, was consistent and upbeat and had a good attitude.
“The teachers had a lot of respect for him,” she said. “I know he had a lot of tough things happen in his life, and this is like a new beginning for him.”