by Sarah Einselen
Some with tears, some smiling ear to ear, 43 people — their ages ranging from 16 to 58 — walked across Franklin Elementary’s gymnasium to the podium in their first graduation ceremony.
The newly recognized graduates were just some of the 111 students who’ve finished their General Educational Development classes through the Cass-Logan Educational Attainment Resource since the center opened in 2010. CLEAR held its first graduation Thursday night for those who’ve obtained their GED diploma, and plans are to hold a similar ceremony annually now that the first three years’ worth of graduates have been recognized.
Michael Hanawalt, 58, was the oldest person getting his diploma. He passed the GED examination about two months ago, he said, and is now looking for a job.
“It’s been 40 years that I didn’t have it, so I went back,” he said, explaining in just a few words the reason he decided to get his GED diploma.
Hanawalt dropped out of high school in 1973 after his junior year — “I had better things to do,” he said, “and jobs back then weren’t as hard to find.” His four siblings graduated, he said, as have his two sons.
“I was the only one in the family that didn’t have a diploma.”
CLEAR started in 2010 with just 20 students studying for the GED examination. Some of those original students participated in Thursday’s graduation, said Tami McMahan, the center’s director.
“I want to thank you for your patience and for your hard work,” she told those students in her commencement speech. “Together you helped develop a center that has gone from 20 students to close to 220 students today.”
One of those original students, Mindy Stednitz, told her story to the assembly.
Stednitz got a job and began having children a few years after quitting school at 16. She worked at a circuit board factory, but couldn’t advance in the company since she hadn’t finished high school.
She decided to become a stay-at-home mother as her children grew up, so when she and her second husband divorced in 2010, she was left with three children to care for, but no money and no job.
“My world was flipped upside-down,” she told the assembly. “In that moment, things started to come into focus a little.”
Stednitz enrolled in one of the last spots in CLEAR’s new GED classes, and though she “detested” school the first time around, she finished classes in five months and passed the GED test.
She now subs regularly for schools in Logansport and works part time at CLEAR assisting with evening classes. She intends to start classes this year toward an education degree and dreams of working with elementary children with special needs.
“It was amazing” to finally graduate, Stednitz said afterward. “For me personally, I’ve never finished anything. I’ve started a lot of things and quit.”
And since she’s been through it, she feels particularly suited to help other GED students who struggle in the classes.
Many students don’t realize she was a CLEAR student herself, she said.
“I had math nightmares when I was going through it,” Stednitz recalled. She’s spoken with others who had the same fears, too, and being able to relate has helped them finish when they thought it was nearly impossible.
Stednitz’s 17-year-old daughter beamed at her mother during the informal reception after the ceremony.
“She kept trying and trying and trying, and I was really proud of her,” said Brittany Liberto, now a junior at The Academy, Logansport High School’s alternative school. “She wanted to show us that just because bad things happen in your life, you don’t give up.”
McMahan challenged the other graduates to likewise use their GED diploma as a springboard rather than a destination. That might mean pursuing a trade certification, she said, or traditional college classes, besides getting a job or advancing to a better job.
Family members and friends clapped and cheered for each graduate as they shook hands with former Mayor Mike Fincher and took their diplomas.
Michael’s mother, Barbara Hanawalt, 79, could hardly contain her joy after the ceremony.
“I’ve got five kids, and this one is the only one that never graduated — until today,” she said. “I am so happy.”
She was joined by three of her other children, two of her sisters, and Michael’s brother-in-law and nephew in the bleachers at the elementary gym, helping fill about three-fourths of the bleachers on one wall.
Michael had tried before to earn a GED, explained Barbara, and had quit three or four times. “We were so sure that he’d give up on this one, but he didn’t. And I’m so glad.”
It wasn’t easy, Michael said.
“When I first started it, it was scary, because it’s been 40 years,” he pointed out. Algebra was particularly challenging. “But these teachers said I could do it. ... and I did it.”
Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-732-5151.