Let me tell you about 1 dropout

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 18, 2008

By Tony Phillips
For the Salisbury Post
I dropped out of school after finishing the 10th grade at South Rowan. By age 17, I already had a full-time job at a cotton mill in China Grove, and I had already moved into a very small mobile home. That was in 1975.
It was hard on someone new to the world of work and grownups to both work and go to high school, and so I was considering leaving school for good. I knew the smart thing and the right thing to do was to stay in school. But another part of me wanted to prove something to the world and make it on my own right out of the gate. Still, I sought approval in that decision. I went to someone who I felt like could guide me and was surely in a position to know if my quitting school was right or wrong.
I went to the assistant principal’s office at South Rowan High and asked for a meeting. I told the gentleman about my idea of quitting school just weeks into the 11th grade. He pulled my school records and reviewed them with me. Since I was taking no college-prep courses and since I had a good job by those standards, he told me that he did not see anything wrong with my quitting.
I wanted him to scold me and argue that it was a big mistake to quit school. Even at that young age, I knew it was wrong, but also at that young age, I was still reckless. I quit school that week and continued on in one dirty mill or another for the next 25 years. I was somehow still able to get to the better jobs in the mill, but I still worked at places I did not like and sometimes, with people I did not understand.
Thankfully, I finally had my opportunity. I was put on a permanent layoff at a shop in Tennessee. And I qualified for grants to go to college. After 25 years of jobs I hated, I had my chance. I enrolled at Nashville State Community College, a small college in Cookeville, Tenn. Within a month of graduating two years later with a two-year college degree and an A Plus Computer Certification, I was interviewed for an Information Technologies (IT) position at W.A. Brown & Son, Inc. here in Salisbury. My hobby had now become a new and exciting career. I work with wonderful people now, and the dark days of the past are overshadowed by a bright new future, all because I went back to school.
To this day, however, I am so very disappointed in that man who let me fall through the cracks only to reappear 25 long years later. You might ask, what did I lose after all? I lost the social skills that ones gains through contact with other students, the lifelong connections of school pals, the ability to reason gained from structured learning environments. I lost things you would never miss had you not lost them yourself. It was a hard road. Now, I try to make up for his mistake at every opportunity by talking with young people and giving them encouragement, mostly through my own example.
What does it take to keep kids in school? Well, it may take nothing more than showing an interest in them. Ask them not to quit. Give them real-life examples of the consequences. At least in my case, all it would have taken to keep me in school would have been a simple arm on my shoulder and a small amount of good advice. Or maybe, just knowing that someone was looking for my eyes in the crowds walking the halls of school.
By the way, though 25 years late, I did somehow graduate with Highest Honors. Imagine what could have been.
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Tony Phillips lives in Salisbury.