Grandfather Heads Back to High School, Earns Diploma

PEYTON, Colo. – Thirty-five years after dropping out of high school in Waterbury, Conn., George Cook was added to a graduation list in Colorado.

Cook, 53, frequently promised his stepfather that he’d eventually earn his high school diploma. He made his final pact in early 2011, a couple of months before the man who had raised him, since 6 years old, died. On Dec. 11, he earned his diploma.

“All the years, I’d talk about going back and getting it,” said Cook, who moved to Colorado in 2008. “But I stayed so busy – sometimes working more than 60 hours per week. I was always exhausted.”

The hard-working grandfather knew a lot of academic standards had changed since 1977, when he left high school amid arguments with faculty. He says there wasn’t enough personalized attention in Waterbury. He fell off his path to graduation.

In September, following a long day molding custom-fit earpieces for motorcycle riders, Cook got caught in traffic on Highway 24 in Peyton. Sitting at a traffic light, he saw a sign explaining a new GED prep program in Falcon School District 49.

Cook emailed the faculty at Patriot Learning Center, and received a response the next morning. The program had started in August with 18 adults, a group eager to earn their diploma despite setbacks in traditional learning environments.

The determined resident of Calhan, Colo., committed to the evening prep sessions, Tuesdays and Thursdays, as his wife moved back to Waterbury.

“I told her I wasn’t leaving until I finish this,” said Cook, worried he’d never find a similar educational experience in Connecticut. “I could just feel they cared here.

“I told her I wasn’t leaving until I finish this. … I could just feel they cared here.”

“If you had trouble with something, they’d work with you until you got it,” he said, about GED instructors Joyce Wernsman and Jennifer Ross.

While studying through weekends, Cook passed his social studies exam, and then science. In November, he passed math and reading. One test remained: writing.

“Writing has always been a problem. … The essay part of my tests was my biggest fear,” said Cook. The instructors started offering him more specialized attention.

“As he sat there in class, you could see the agony,” said Wernsman, about Cook’s writing anxiety. “He really worked hard. Not only in class, but at home, too.”

While at home, Cook would write practice stories, rehearsing spelling, grammar and essay structure. One night, his faithful companion, a German Shepherd-Collie mix, started nudging his arm, so he wrote about their 15 years together.

After taking the writing exam Dec. 11, he constantly checked the GED website for his score. During a work break the next day, he told a coworker about his pending test result. She handed him her Internet-enabled smartphone.

Cook seized the midday opportunity to log into the site. He slid the device under a workbench magnifying glass, scanning its screen. He stopped at one word, “passed.”

“I didn’t even see what the score was,” said Cook. “I went to the backroom and sent ‘passed’ in a text to everyone on my phone – everyone knew what it meant.”

“Awesome… I knew you could do it,” said his sister in text message.

“Good deal, come home,” said his wife.

Cook is headed back to Waterbury next month to reunite with his family.

“My father taught me many things, a strong work ethic was one of them,” said Cook, who’s now waiting for a copy of his diploma. He’ll hang it near his stepfather’s urn.

“We really didn’t know what to expect and we’re honored to have had the successes that we’ve had,” said Wernsman, explaining that nine of the prep program’s participants have taken their required GED exams, and all nine have passed.

Wernsman told Cook his name would appear on Patriot Learning Center’s annual graduation ceremony pamphlet, while offering to send a copy to Connecticut.

The proud graduate delivered his final literary effort to the alternative learning school Dec. 20, a handwritten letter of gratitude.

“For years,” said Cook, in his letter, “I promised my father I would get my GED, unfortunately my father couldn’t be here to see me achieve this goal. He would be so proud of me for that.

“I have to say the two teachers that teach the classes do everything in their power to help you pass the test. In my words, they are both really awesome. I could never say enough good things about them.”

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