Bernard's future hangs on the GED test.
Part 4 of 4
Bernard Hill is up at 6 a.m. on Oct. 9, out the door by 7, walking two blocks in the dark to Benham Avenue and 116th Street, where he waits for the No. 15 bus to wheeze to a stop so he can hop on, drop $1.50 into the money box and find a seat.
From Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, it’s a five-mile, 20-stop, 30-minute ride–on a good day.
That’s why Bernard is up so early, why he ends up at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro Campus at 8:25 in the morning, the first student there for a GED test that begins at 9:30.
He pokes his head into the second-floor testing room with its rows of chairs and long, cafeteria tables, then makes his way to the front.
For an hour, he waits in the room filled with pull-down video screens, flip charts and Henri Matisse posters, twirling the gold ring, the one that belonged to his grandfather, round and round on his finger.
Since his grandmother gave it to him in 2004, not long after his grandfather died, it’s brought him wisdom when he has needed it most.
“Sometimes, I can just look at it,” Bernard says, “and answers will come to me.”
It seems to have helped with the GED.
Four hours later, as he leaves Part I of the test, the smile returns to his face. The fear disappears from his eyes.
“I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t scared,” he says before catching the bus home. “But it was easier than I thought.”
If the fear is there two mornings later, you can’t feel it in the slow steps he takes in the rain, can’t see it in the big, brown eyes nearly hidden by the bill of his Yankees cap, can’t feel it in the way he makes his way down the street, around the corner and into the store where he works eight or so hours a week to grab a cup of coffee.
In 48 hours, the seasons have changed. Two days earlier, the temperature in Cleveland hit 88 degrees. Now, it’s raining and 48, and Bernard’s warming his hands on a convenience-store cappuccino as he stands at the shelterless bus stop.
A woman hunkers under an umbrella nearby. Rush-hour traffic slings water at their feet. Just like always, Bernard shrugs it off with another one of his sayings: “There’s no joy without pain,” he says this time.
Four more hours of filling in tiny circles on an answer sheet and the test is over.
“I think I did OK,” he says just after 1:30 p.m., as he waits at the bus stop on East 30th Street, for the No. 14 to take him home.
As he jumps on the bus, the wind pushes black clouds across the sky and, through an opening, the sun shines down on Cleveland.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he says before taking off. “It’s like I already know I passed.”
And to think he almost hadn’t taken the test.
A few days earlier, he announced he was backing out. His aunt couldn’t give him a ride. He had no way to get downtown. And he didn’t want to take the free bus pass that had been offered to him. “I’m responsible for myself,” he said then, dropping another one of his sayings.
Later, he admitted he’d been afraid: afraid he’d disappoint his grandmother and all the other people counting on him, afraid he’d disappoint himself. Later, he talked about his past and his future, using a whole new slew of his sayings.
“You know, I killed my childhood,” he says. “I almost had to. There were things that needed to be done and a child couldn’t do them.
“Now, I want to see me on top of the world. I just want to look back and say Aha, the system didn’t beat me. I beat the system.’ “
For the next 11 days, he waits to see if he has.
On Monday afternoon, Oct. 22, Gloria Mobley paces the lobby of the UTC Building at Tri-C, waiting to give Bernard his results, in person.
The state mails them to students’ homes. But Mobley, who oversees the college’s GED program, usually gets them faster. And she likes to meet with students face-to-face so she can help them register for college classes right away–if they pass.
Bernard said he’d be there at 2 p.m.
At 2:15, he hasn’t arrived. At 2:30, he still isn’t there.
Has he missed the bus? Was it running late?
A voice-mail message explains.
“I won’t be there,” Bernard says.
A letter from the state arrived at his house over the weekend. He has the results.
He needs 2,250 points to pass.
“I scored 2,500,” he says later that day, excitement in his voice.
“I feel pretty good about it. I feel real good.”
He’s already called his cousin about the job at CVS, already filled out the application, already is talking about having the job by the end of the week.
“I’m just so happy,” he says. “I can finally get things started.”
His childhood role model, Pooh, a cousin who’s serving six years for shooting into an occupied building, is proud and excited.
“He has accomplished what so very few minorities could accomplish,” Pooh says in a letter from prison. “He has successfully obtained a diploma and has survived the hardships of growing up with two drug-addicted parents in the Mount Pleasant area without any run-ins with the law.
“I should be looking up to him.”
“Oh, I just love it,” the 84-year-old woman who raised him squeals. “Now I just pray he goes forward, gets him a good job. I want him to be able to take care of himself–in case something happens to me.”
But a GED doesn’t guarantee a guy anything.
Good jobs don’t come easy in Cleveland.
A month later, there’s news that nearly 1,000 people have applied for 42 jobs at the ArcelorMittal steel plant here, and 6,000 people turned out for 300 jobs at Wal-Mart.
Even so, the CVS manager calls Bernard. She schedules an interview for Nov. 30, at 2 p.m.
That morning, Bernard gets a call from the convenience store. They’re short-handed. They need him to come in and work.
He puts in two hours, then races home, gives himself a haircut, pulls on a pair of black dress pants, a black-and-white button-down shirt and a big, thick sweatshirt to keep himself warm as he walks nearly a mile in an icy wind to the drugstore.
Twenty minutes later, he steps out of the CVS and pulls the sweatshirt back over his head. Even that can’t hide his smile.
“I can’t wait ’til I get paid,” he says, talking about the checking account he’ll open and the car he’ll buy.
As soon as he gets back home, he sits down on the sofa, next to Granny. She straightens his collar. He tells her the news, gives her a big kiss. She leans into his shoulder and giggles.
He is scheduled to start work at the CVS on Wednesday.
It’s too early to know if Bernard’s story has a happy ending, the one he predicted with his favorite saying: a minor setback for a major comeback.
He’s had a lifetime of setbacks. His parents were hooked on drugs and in out of prison. The woman who took him in died when he was 17. His grandfather died two weeks after that. He dropped out of school, couldn’t find a good job, watched as his male role model went to prison.
But he never gave up.
What kept him going?
“Granny,” he says.
“I’m scared that my grandmother’s going to be gone. And there’s so much I need to learn before I can live on my own.”
And if she goes?
Bernard sits there, quiet, for a long time. He hangs his head, shakes it back and forth.
He doesn’t have a saying for that.
Plain Dealer researcher JoEllen Corrigan contributed to this article
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected], 216-999-4987