The Rev. Carl Kenney, in his keynote address to this year’s Durham Literacy Council GED graduates, remembered the teacher to whom he returned a test with no marks on it but his name. The teacher asked him to stay behind the next day. Kenney knew he had it coming, but he also knew that he was battling his own problems–drugs and the untimely death of his 13-year-old sister.

Instead of a reprimand, however, the teacher handed the test back to him with an “A” on it and simply said, “I will not watch you fail, because I understand what you are going through. I will not let you fail.” The teacher shared her own grief about the loss of her husband with the young Kenney, and she returned his test covered with hope. That hope, from a compassionate teacher, helped Kenney keep going and keep his head afloat when the forces of grief, despair and drugs, were about to take him under.

The graduation ceremony, held June 24 at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Durham, began with a welcome from Lucy Haagen, the center’s executive director. The GED stands for General Educational Development, and consists of five separate subject tests. Hagan pointed out that the “cut score” for passing has been set at a level high enough to exclude 40 percent of the field-test control group of recent high school graduates.

This year’s graduates included a group of 27 teens who are GED recipients and eight more who’ve passed at least one official GED exam. Of the adult group, there were 10 GED recipients and 19 more who have passed at least one official exam.

This graduation was no ordinary one. Tiffany Lewis, a GED recipient and winner of an essay-writing contest judged by Kelly Benhase of the Duke Writing Program, read her essay at the ceremony. She first stated that she would not read her essay. Then she began to tell us what getting her GED had meant to her–the topic for the essay contest. She hardly had begun speaking when tears stopped her. The room was pregnant with emotion and silence.

Crack addiction, alcoholism, pregnancies and second pregnancies, rapes and even suicide attempts were some of the insidious dark problems that lurked in corners of students’ lives. Most, if not all, of these young people didn’t have parents hustling them around in carpools to after-school sporting events; didn’t have parents calling their teachers to make sure the Individual Educational Plan was being carried out; and didn’t have parents who carried a vision of hope for their lives. Yet even in a society where racism exists, where cruel poverty infests their lives and threatens to overtake them at every corner, these folks know what it’s like to follow a single beam of light through a dark place and then to come out into the gleaming sunlight, knowing they did it.

Lewis’ teacher, Sandee Washington, got up to help her read her fine essay. But Washington didn’t finish it. Instead, she gave it back to Lewis to finish. Lewis read the last paragraph, which was about her children. She said she’s happy that now she can say to her children during times of struggle, “You can do it, you can persevere.”