Mario has waited a little longer for the honor than the other seniors walking the stage – the 33-year-old attended Anniston High 14 years ago but, just two half-credits short of earning his diploma, gave up on his education.
His senior year in 1996 was stressful. His father had died. His stepfather had abandoned the family, and Mario, the oldest child, stepped in to try to be the man of the house.
“I was trying to work,” he said. “I was trying to play football. I just had a lot going on at that time.”
Mario was dropped from the football team and slowly lost interest in school. Two weeks before graduation, he found out he couldn’t graduate with his class. That was when he stopped going to school.
“He just put his life and education on hold, and I hated that,” said his mother, Barbara Reed.
Life went on. Mario worked. He had five children. He tried to support his growing family the best he could on dead-end, minimum-wage jobs, but it was tough.
In 2009, Mario applied for a job with the city, but without his diploma, he couldn’t get the position. That hurt. Then his 9-year-old son, William, asked him about his diploma.
“That pretty much shook me,” Mario said. “My brother has his diploma. My sister has her diploma. My wife even has her diploma. So, I’m the only one left without a diploma, and I want them to understand that an education is eve-rything.”
That was the impetus he needed to go back to school.
He started studying for the General Educational Development exam. Then, he heard about PDSS Inc., formerly known as Project Development Services. PDSS offered him the opportunity to attend the two classes he was missing – government and economics – and earn his high school diploma.
PDSS, a for-profit educational center, offers classes to students who need to make up credits or earn their GED. In Mario’s case, it made more sense to earn the missing credits.
“The student really deserves to complete that diploma because they worked hard,” said Rosetta S. Dean, owner of PDSS. “For half a credit in government and half a credit in economics, that’s almost like a student who would just need to attend summer school.”
It was tough going back to school, Mario said. When he went in for the placement test, he was in a roomful of students almost half his age.
“You just get kind of like the eye, the cut, like who is this old guy?” Mario said. “But hey, I’m just here for the same reason you are. I just wish I’d a did it a long time ago.”
The classes were hard. His teacher was welcoming, but strict. She demanded his best, even telling him a B wasn’t good enough. He could do better.
He did. He earned an A and a B+ in his classes and is proud of the achievement.
Anniston High School Principal Sherron Jinadu said the high school is also excited to have Mario graduating with the senior class. He is an example the school is proud to offer to its students and the community.
“This is one of the things that President Obama has spoken about with continuing your education,” Jinadu said. “All of us are lifelong learners, and he didn’t give up.”
The school will be telling Mario’s story tonight at the graduation and challenging all its students to show the same fortitude and determination that Mario needed to earn his diploma, she said.
A diploma is always important, but it may be even more important during this recession. There are more atypical students coming to PDSS to earn their GEDs and diplomas because the economy has created such a tough job mar-ket, Dean said.
“That definitely is a good reason to return and certainly that is a good thing,” she said.
It can make a big difference in a person’s paycheck. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, in Calhoun County, the median income for people older than 25 with no diploma is $20,440; with a diploma, the median income is $25,347. Almost 15 percent of the county’s population 25 and older do not have their high school diploma.
Now that Mario has earned his diploma, he intends to go back to the city and apply for a job. This time, there is nothing stopping him, he said.
And he’s not stopping there. Mario intends to continue his education at the Ayers Campus of Gadsden State Community College, studying business management. Eventually, he hopes to open his own business – a store or studio, something to do with music.
He hopes his accomplishment will inspire other students to reach for their dreams.
“Keep going,” Mario said. “Don’t let nothing stop you, ’cause once you let something stop you, you’ll let the next thing stop you and you’ll let the next thing stop you. Right now, I’m not letting anything stop me. I’m going to go as far as I can go.”
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.