The young man sits on the front row, peering through thick glasses at the mathematics worksheet lying on his desk at Greater Columbus Learning Center. A few of his classmates glance up as he begins to speak, but most keep their heads bowed in concentration as they focus on their own lessons, their own dreams.
He was born with a learning disability, he says aloud, to no one in particular. It doesn’t mean he’s not smart; he just learns differently.
This is true, and he wants to believe this, but a lifetime of taunts have taken their toll. The positive words barely leave his lips before he quickly negates them: “I was stupid in school. I don’t want to be 35, still trying to get my GED.”
The indulgent smile leaves GED Instructor Linda Malbrough’s face as she leans forward to look him in the eyes. She’ll tolerate a lot, as love so often will, but he has crossed the line. “Stupid” is an obscenity in her classroom, and to continue to use the word will provoke a rebuke. Malbrough did not become the Mississippi Association of Adult and Community Education’s 2011-2012 Teacher of the Year by telling students what they want to hear. She deals in truth, even when — especially when — that truth flies in the face of every negative thing they’ve ever believed about themselves.
Mary Thomas sits in a wheelchair, her class-work spread before her as she clutches her pencil, waiting to interject.
“How old do you think I am?” she asks her classmate.
“I’m 85,” she says defiantly. “People told me I was stupid, too.”
Above and beyond
Thomas, perhaps more than any of the students, illustrates how deeply the staff gets involved at the learning center, which specializes in assisting adults of all ages with college and career readiness.
Though many students, like those in Malbrough’s class, are working to earn their GEDs, others come to prepare for tests like the ACT or to brush up on reading, math and language skills. Courses are also offered in English as a Second Language. Last year, 713 students attended classes. This year, 116 so far have earned their GEDs.
As a child, Thomas was ridiculed by her family, withdrawn from school and shoved into the workforce with barely an elementary education. She grew up, married, raised babies and buried a husband. A few years ago, she realized her family’s words still stung. So she decided to prove them wrong.
GED Examiner Alicia Prude, 38, was the first person to discover another secret Thomas held — every day she came to class, and every evening she returned to a house that was literally crumbling beneath her feet. When Thomas fell through the rotting floor, Prude decided enough was enough. She got the city and local agencies involved, and in April, Thomas was moved to a new apartment on Southside.
Prude, like Malbrough, is willing to do anything she can to help the center’s students, and for that reason, she too was honored by MAACE last week, receiving a plaque naming her the state’s staff support member of the year for the northern region.
Prude has a passion for people and an uncanny knack for listening, GCLC Director Darren Jordan says, and he credits her warm, yet no-nonsense demeanor with turning lives around.
People are often troubled, and it doesn’t take Prude long to figure out the cause. Some are nervous about returning to the classroom. Others, like Thomas, have more pressing concerns.
“I’ve seen people sit in there an hour,” Jordan says, nodding toward Prude’s office. “She’s the first one they see. They dump a lot of baggage in there.”
When Prude cooks for her family, she takes an extra plate to Thomas. When Malbrough learned a student was an orphan, on the brink of homelessness, she took him into her own home.
Together, they are a formidable duo. Prude brings people in the door, and Malbrough keeps them in class.
Prude says she benefits from the “life-changing” experiences she has had since coming to GCLC three years ago.
“I’m just a believer in second chances,” she says. “In every aspect of my life, since I was very young, I’ve always given people the benefit of a doubt. I never expect less than their best.”
A mission to help
Malbrough holds her students to that same ideal. She’s been an educator for 37 years, the past 20 of which have been spent at GCLC. She lives for that moment when she sees “the light bulbs go off” in her students’ eyes as they finally grasp a lesson.
A while back, she thought she might retire. At the age of 60, the hour drive to and from her home in Ackerman has become tedious. But she can’t leave, she says. Teaching is in her blood, and GCLC’s students are in her heart.
“They’re going to have to bury me here,” she says. “People are God’s creation, and if they need help, we’ve got to help. Isn’t that what we’re here for?”
She bends down to ask Eddie Hendricks, 20, a question, then hugs him. When she walks away, he says her dedication helps him stay focused. Recently, he was late for class, and Malbrough gave him “a reality check,” he says, laughing. He hasn’t been late again.
Hendricks was a sophomore when he dropped out of Columbus High School. He says he was running with the wrong crowd, anxious to be an adult.
But adulthood has proven harder than he expected, especially without a high school diploma. He has applied for numerous jobs at fast food restaurants and other businesses, but his calls are never returned.
He wants a better life, a brighter future, he says. He thinks after he earns his GED and takes the ACT, he’ll head out to Kansas, see something new. He daydreams of enrolling at Kansas State University to study business and play basketball. He sheepishly grins and admits that sometimes, he dreams of becoming an NBA star.
In the front row, the student who called himself stupid has launched into a daydream of his own. He’d like a job, he says. He thinks he’d like to work for the City of Columbus.
Malbrough smiles and gently brings him back to earth with a reminder: “Then get your GED.”
No dream is too big or too small. And it’s never too late to earn a second chance.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.