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Molly Robertson: A Bigger Plan

Molly Robertson"In most states, a high school diploma USUALLY means that an individual can read, write and compute at a certain level. A GED diploma ALWAYS means that a person can read, write and compute at a certain level; a level that one in four high school seniors cannot achieve."

Molly Robertson is the Director for LEARN-AT-HOME which provides GED ON TV support services for adults throughout Indiana.

Molly can relate to each graduate of the program she directs, because she found herself having to take care of two children by herself. With only two years of high school, she found a job at a car dealership. She enrolled herself in a college program but before she could go any further she had to conquer one more thing.

One of my favorite writers is Sharon Randall, a syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. In a column about four years ago she was giving suggestions for "getting along in the world" to the graduates in a California high school class. Under the heading, "Things my grandmother always said - or would have if she'd thought of it" was my all time favorite advice.

"If you have to swallow a frog, don't look at it too long before you put it in your mouth; and if you have to swallow two frogs, swallow the big one first."

This may not seem to have anything to do with literacy, but it has a lot to do with me and the way my life has evolved. I am sure that neither my grandmother, nor anyone else gave me this sage advice about frogs and life. I think it was something I learned on my own.

The oldest of five kids, I don't remember ever being allowed to be a child. I was expected to care for the younger kids from a very young age. By thirteen I was ironing my sisters' little dresses and pretending they were my kids. I would cook supper for the whole family. No one ever questioned my maturity I knew which frog to eat first.

From before I can remember I could read. I have tried to remember the process of learning to read but I can't. I have just always known how. My mom read a large book of fairy tales to us a lot. She says she didn't try to teach me to read. I just learned. From the very earliest age I read books. I remember reading "Dick and Jane" at school and coming home and reading chapter books. I think books saved my life. Books kept me sane. Books let me pretend. Books let me forget about the life I was living. I could forget about the booze. I could forget about the shouting for a little while. I could forget that I wasn't supposed to be a kid. Books let me live in a fantasy world where there was always enough money. Books let me travel, and do lots of things I wouldn't have had the nerve to try even if there had been enough money.

I remember as a teen wishing I had a dad like the ones in the books who would take me into the library and tell me that I was smart, every bit as good as the boys...and that I could become anyone I wanted to become before he sent me off to Vassar. That is what reading books will put into your head! But I didn't.

At sixteen I escaped the home of my parents by getting married. Soon I had two little girls of my own to iron and cook for. I continued to read everything I could get my hands on. In the sixties I read magazines that said I should want a nice house in the suburbs that had roses and a patio. They taught me how to cook hamburger 101 different ways. I sewed little dresses and Barbie doll clothes. I cooked and I cleaned and I read about exotic places and people doing exciting things. And I wondered is this all there is?

Then eleven years into my marriage, one Saturday morning my life turned upside down. My husband had been working lots of extra hours at his job some nights sleeping only four hours. We had a fight, pretty much about nothing, on Friday night and when I woke on Saturday he was gone. Just like in the books. His stuff was gone. No note. Just gone.

Now what? I was lucky to have a job as a bookkeeper at a car dealer. But I didn't earn enough to support two kids who wanted to eat three meals a day. But it was a job - for three days. On the following Wednesday I got laid off. Now, I had two years of high school, no job, two daughters to feed, my husband had taken the car and no one knew where he was. It was a good thing that I had already learned not to look at the frog too long before I put it into my mouth.

The night I lost my job I drank half a bottle of wine and cried a lot. Then the next morning, I got up, put on my best outfit, borrowed my brother's car and began to drive up the street that had all of the car dealers on it. By two o'clock I had conned myself into a new job I didn't know how to do. Talk about on the job training!

"If you have to swallow a frog, don't look at it too long before you put it in your mouth; and if you have to swallow two frogs, swallow the big one first."

After a couple of years of blaming myself for everything, I began to recover. Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis was offering classes for adults who didn't want to work on a degree. My sister-in-law was enrolling and I decided to go too. For the first time in my life I found something I was good at. Older and less shy, I was a good student.

I went to college four nights a week and tried to keep things going smoothly at home. Then the bottom fell out, or so I thought. I got a letter from IUPUI saying that I had the maximum number of non-degree hours I had to enroll or quit. In tears, I went to my counselor and admitted that I couldn't enroll because I had never graduated from high school. Never mind that I had earned 24 hours of straight A's in college. My shameful secret was out.

My counselor very calmly said, "Why don't you take the GED?" I had never heard of the GED. It sounded pretty scary to take a test that would represent high school, but I was thrilled to learn that I wouldn't have to go back to high school. I have often wondered if I would have. I took the GED test and passed. Now I could really enroll in the university.

After eleven years of working all day, going to school at night, being a mom and a dad and occasionally trying to have a date, I graduated with a degree in photo-journalism. Next I worked as a photographer and criminal investigator while I went to graduate school studying telecommunications. I was planning on a career producing television documentaries. Ah, "the best laid schemes o' mice and men." Sometimes there is a bigger plan. It was payback time.

In 1986 a friend from my Quaker meeting asked me to look at a proposal for an adult education pilot program that was going to be on local public television. I knew lots about television I even had a degree! But I knew nothing about adult education. Or so I thought. All those seventeen years of being an adult student had taught me a lot. I took the job. Starting the Indiana GED ON TV program from scratch was scary and exciting. I wished that there had been a program like it when I was home with my little children.

In 1990 we were blessed to get the support of all eight Hoosier PBS television stations. With funding from the Indiana Department of Education, we expanded to form Learn at Home and provide GED ON TV student support services for adults throughout Indiana. Since that time we have had over 5,000 graduates. Each one has a story. Some of them are similar to mine. Some are not. I feel a closeness to each one. I have been there - not being able to get a good job, feeling incomplete, fearing that someone would find out, and for sure not knowing which frog to eat first. I know the value of the GED. It opens doors. And I am proud to help provide a way for other adults to take that first step into the future.

Views on Literacy
The GED opens doors. I get very frustrated with people who claim that the GED credential is worth very little. In most states, a high school diploma USUALLY means that an individual can read, write and compute at a certain level. A GED diploma ALWAYS means that a person can read, write and compute at a certain level; a level that one in four high school seniors cannot achieve. I always encourage young people to stay in school. But there are lots of reasons for leaving school before you graduate. I was sixteen and pregnant. Some kids have to work. Others just don't do well in a traditional classroom.

Employers and university registrars have recognized the value of the GED for many years. But I believe the true value lies elsewhere. I get letters from our GED ON TV students telling of how great they feel once they earn their GED diploma. It is this "feeling" that enables folks to move forward, to start college or vocational school, to get a better job, to encourage their kids or grandkids from a stronger position, to become more involved in their communities and to finally believe they have something to offer to the world.

Meet some other Forum guests.

Questions and Answer Forum
Read questions Forum readers sent to Molly Robertson, and her answers.

Read Molly's update on GED ON TV from Focus On Basic's last issue.