If I were to look way back, I’d probably say that it started with Saved By The Bell, the original series. You remember — Zack, Kelly, A.C., Jessie, Lisa, and Screech, graduated with their caps and gowns from Bayside High, and rode off into the sunset (we almost lost Zack there, but he made it!).

The graduation episode of 1992, might have been my first foray into the many tales that end in a graduation ceremony leading its characters off into the adult world. It’s embedded into the fabric of our society: you go to high school and graduate and then move on to bigger and better things. Simple, right?

But what if you don’t?

What happens to those who never finish high school? Those who never meet that rite of passage? After all, that accounts for approximately 20% of Americans.

The Long Road to My High School Diploma

I can’t speak for all high school “drop-outs,” but I can speak for myself.

It’s true, after the many years of public schooling and nearing the finish line, I never graduated from high school. There was no cap and gown. No family photos with beaming parents. After four years of not caring about my education, I was short four credits but didn’t want to go back for a 5th year, so I promised myself I’d go to night school and was thrust into the adult world that I was craving.

I tried for the next while to earn those credits but never did finish. I earned a single credit, and then I let life carry me away. Over the years, I opened a business or two, became a parent, and continued the process of ticking off the “Grade 8” box under Highest Level of Completed Education on forms? Each time, ruthlessly erasing the four years I did spend in high school. Technically though, it was the truth. So, I’d check it off and cringe.

At 26, I decided to apply to University as a mature student and was accepted. I took only a single course. Now I was in the big leagues, I told myself, yet still, the feeling of having not graduated from high school nagged me. My mind had also turned into a story that sounded like this: you can’t finish things. You never do.

Changing The Story in My Head

I let myself believe this story for all of my twenties, but when I turned thirty, I needed to know if it was true.

I signed up to write my GED the following month and spent the next four weeks studying. I was worried because I never took math or science courses in the senior grades, but still had to learn as much as possible and write tests on all the major subjects. So I persisted. Then on the day of the test, I sat down with a group of mostly adults, and together we attempted to alter our futures.

After a few nervous weeks the mail arrived, and in it, there was a diploma. I let out a deep breath that felt as if I’d been holding it in for twelve years, and the negative story went with it.

The Moral of My Story

I may not have had the big graduation ceremony marking my transition into adulthood when I was supposed to, but I did get there. I slipped into a new chapter, quietly. And although I wish I would have just had the resolve to keep pushing myself at 18, the truth is, a lot of people don’t. And they might not have the extra support either, to be that push they need.


“As long as you keep moving forward and are resilient, eventually, you’ll get to the place you want to be.” Heidi Oran



So while we’ve very focused on achievement as a society, and getting a high school diploma is not only important, it’s necessary for survival, the path I took taught me important lessons.

  • I learned that it’s never too late to go back and finish what you start.
  • I learned that there is no one right way to do something.
  • I learned that a piece of paper doesn’t define you — but it can also yield much power over both your past and future.

Would I want my kids to take this same route? Never. But I know that for them, as for everyone, there isn’t a single “right” path. And as long as you keep moving forward and are resilient, eventually, you’ll get to the place you want to be.

Earning a high school diploma isn't only important, society has deemed it almost necessary for survival. What happens to those who don't graduate? This is one story.