Local man faces his fears to earn diploma
George Cruz, of Tullahoma, struggled in school as a child. He said he felt he “wasn’t smart enough to keep up with the other kids.”
He fell behind during the first years of school. He never asked for help.
“That was my main problem,” Cruz said.
Cruz earned his high school-equivalent diploma about 20 years after his peers graduated from high school.
Grateful for this opportunity, he now encourages others to always look ahead and not let the past prevent them from fulfilling their dreams.
He shared his experience at the April 24 Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast hosted by the Literacy Council, the organization that helped Cruz achieve his goal of passing HiSET (High School Equivalency Test).
Cruz was born in Puerto Rico. When he was 2, his family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he lived for 32 years.
“I never cared too much for school,” he said. “I was never good at spelling and I never asked for help.”
While he lacked confidence in his writing skills, Cruz knew he had a knack for troubleshooting.
“I have always been good at figuring out how something works,” he said. “If something didn’t work, I could mess with it a little bit, figure out how it works and, then, figure out what was wrong.”
He liked electronics and working on repair projects.
“It came easy, and I didn’t have to think about it,” he said. “I could pick up how to work on cars, too. When my dad worked on cars or houses, I would go with him and figure stuff out, but I didn’t think I was smart enough for school.”
When he was in 10th grade, Cruz decided he didn’t want to go to classes anymore.
“I left school,” he said.
Cruz told his parents he would one day earn his diploma but, at the time, he just wanted to work.
Calling Tullahoma home
From Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Cruz moved to Huntsville, Alabama, and spent seven years there. He and his wife moved to Tullahoma in 2007 and he started a part-time job at U.S. Display Group.
“I worked at the packing department and the job came easy,” he said. “About three months later, one of the managers asked me if I wanted a full-time job. He said they will pay me more money and give me vacation and holidays.”
Cruz was more than just interested, but there was an obstacle. The one hurdle preventing him from getting the job was his lack of education.
“My manager said, ‘If you get your [diploma], I will give you a job,” Cruz said. “And that was it.”
Making a choice
“I had a choice to make: whether to continue working at $7.50 an hour or face my fears,” Cruz said. “I had never earned a diploma and never went back to school because of fear. I feared that I wasn’t smart enough to be able to earn it.”
But it was time to stop running, said Cruz.
“I found the telephone number for free classes through the Literacy Council and signed up,” he said. “I was scared at first.”
He feared the teachers would ask him why he had quit school.
“But to my surprise, they didn’t care about my past, they were concerned about my future,” Cruz said.
The teachers just wanted to help him prepare for the HiSet.
“That lifted me up – there was somebody that was not going to judge me for what I did before and why I had quit school,” Cruz said.
He learned valuable lessons while attending classes.
“One of the teachers said, ‘Repeat, repeat, repeat,’” Cruz said. “The other teacher always said, ‘Show up.’ I took it a step further by showing up and giving it my best.”
About three months later, Cruz took the exam.
“The teacher signed me up and I had to go,” he said. “The test was about eight hours and I was a nervous wreck.”
Cruz thought he had failed.
“About two weeks later, I got my results,” Cruz said. “I passed. I felt like I had won the lottery. I have never won the lottery, but I know how they feel – it’s life-changing and you don’t believe it. I was shaking. I was crying. It was an awesome experience and, looking back now, these were life-changing moments for me.”
Since holding his diploma for the first time, his expectations for the future have bloomed.
“For one, when I went back to the manager with that paper, he was able to give me the job he had promised, and that was one big door that opened,” Cruz said. “Every time I had worked at a place, I had always moved up to the best of my ability, but I was always kept off because of education. Now I know that I could work my way up, which I did in U.S. Display.”
Cruz was promoted to a position in the design department of the company, where his responsibilities grew.
“I learned how to use [various] programs and did quality control,” he said. “I called the customers for orders and I had to make sure the paperwork was right.”
After passing the HiSET, Cruz worked at U.S. Display Group for seven years.
About two years ago, he started his own business, where he utilizes his knowledge of troubleshooting and repair work as well as the writing and math skills necessary for preparing the paperwork he acquired through the Literacy Council.
“My business now is called Handyman I Am,” he said. “I am really busy. I do flooring, from tile to hardwood floors. I do framing and I can build a wall. I can do electrical, plumbing, roofing, trim work.”
Inspiring his children
Earning his diploma gave Cruz confidence to motivate his children to pursue higher education as well. Cruz has inspired his son, Jose, to go to college.
“My son didn’t feel he was smart enough at school,” Cruz said. “Now he’s 21 and in college. He’s going to MTSU and he’s the youngest manager of Electronic Express. He told me he was glad I pushed him the way I did.”
Just as Cruz motivates his children, he was inspired by his father.
“When my dad moved to the United States, he never learned how to write or speak English, but he worked hard every day,” Cruz said. “I always pushed myself and had work ethic due to what I saw my dad do.”
Despite all the difficulties, his father provided for the family and bought a house.
“Because of his sacrifice, I thought I had to push myself harder,” Cruz said. “My dad could have stayed in Puerto Rico, raised us there and continued the same cycle. But he saw what we could have here in the United States, as far as education and a better life, and he came here. That’s why I push myself.”
For more information about the Literacy Council, visit its website at www.needahighschooldiploma.com.
For additional information about adult education classes and to find an education center near you, visit www.tn.gov/adulteducation or call 1-866-801-4723.
Elena Cawley may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.