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I'm a High School Dropout Whose Son Just Graduated

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

The decision to drop out of high school came during the summer of my junior year, when I discovered I was pregnant with my first child at just 17 years old. I moved out of my grandmother's apartment and was suddenly responsible for paying my way through life. That meant school became a sudden daytime luxury I couldn't afford.

The only person in my family that graduated high school was my grandmother. The rest of us dropped out — some of us earning our GEDs and some not. When I was 23, my neighbor Trisha begged me to come with her to a free GED prep class so she wouldn't have to go alone. In the end, she only went to one class while I stayed on and eventually took my exam, earning my general education diploma and giving me wings to later enroll in college.

I never wanted my sons to follow in my footsteps and drop out of high school. While the GED is a great alternative for people who are no longer eligible to earn their diploma, it shouldn't be anyone's first choice in education. I learned the hard way that employers view GED recipients differently from high school graduates. A boss once told me that he generally didn't hire people with GEDs because he thought they were lazier, dumber or just trouble makers who couldn't finish high school. The stigma, however unfair, is still real.

To change the trajectory for both of my sons, I made a conscious effort to do the following six things differently while parenting them. I'm happy to say that so far for my oldest, it's worked.

1. Expect the best.

Not to knock my family, but growing up, I was often told that graduating high school was a choice and that even dropouts could be successful. College wasn't a realistic goal, nor was it seen as necessary for average, middle-class people. While that may have been true long ago, it hasn't been the case since I was a teenager. When I became a parent, I never let my sons think that I viewed their education as anything less than pivotal for their futures.

2. Stay involved.

By the time I was in middle school, my parents had pretty much checked out when it came to my education. They weren't bad parents, but they were raising me as they had been raised, which as a teenager worked great for me. I spent a lot of time ditching classes, taking drugs and avoiding responsibilities while my parents didn't have a clue. As a mom, I made every effort to be involved in their educational and personal lives. I wasn't perfect, and sometimes failed to go school events, but overall I always knew their classes, their teachers, their projects and their struggles.

3. Promote safe sex.

I was told when I was 17 that my parents had a running bet on when I would get pregnant and drop out of high school. I will never forget being told that they had figured I wouldn't make it past 15. I never wanted my sons to believe that I saw anything but the best in them, so I talked to them often about the importance of safe sex and avoiding teen pregnancy. If we tell our kids they don't have the potential to do great things, they will make decisions — like having unprotected sex — that reflect that.

4. Be honest.

Dropping out of high school was painted as "no big deal" to me as a child, when in fact, it was a very big deal. My parents also refused to discuss finances or share their struggles with me, so growing up I had no clue how the real world worked. I made sure to speak truthfully with my sons about the challenges I faced because of my bad choices and let them know how they could do better.

5. Create a safe space.

Although there were many great things about my childhood, there was also violence in our home. The abuse was largely overlooked, but it created an environment of fear. Instead of asking for help on difficult assignments, I hid in my room and avoided interacting with my parents because I didn't want to risk an eruption of anger. Although I am far from a perfect parent (I, too, have anger issues), I've worked hard to make sure my children feel safe in our home and know that they can always come to me for help with both their homework and their lives.

6. Encourage them.

In my elementary school years, I remember being praised and celebrated for getting good grades (my parents weren't monsters). This tapered off as I reached middle school and was non-existent in high school, where I succumbed to peer pressure and got myself in trouble frequently. When it was my turn to parent, I didn't just celebrate my sons' successes, I also taught them the importance of learning from their mistakes. Failure isn't the death of someone's potential, and I wanted them to know that they could and should always strive to do better.

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