With the new school year underway, here’s a story of regret and resolve and the importance of education, and how it’s never too late to go back to school.
It’s the story of Artos Martin.
Martin, 60, who grew up in Washington, D.C., dropped out of school at age 16, figuring he knew more than he did and ignoring the advice of his parents and chasing the wrong crowd. He got into some trouble with the law, found the right path with the help of some good people and went on to become a solid citizen, doing manual labor and driving a truck, raising a family and building a life.
But he never got his high school diploma, and it always bugged him.
So, inspired by a friend, A.C. Morris, who went back to school later in life to earn his diploma, Martin decided to do the same. While earning the necessary credits, he survived a heart attack and a stroke — this after undergoing a kidney transplant (his wife, Sara, was the donor) more than a decade earlier — but he didn’t let those setbacks stop him.
He completed his work, and in June he was asked to speak at Chesterfield County’s adult education graduation ceremony.
“When I walked through the doors to enroll, I was afraid, but so proud, knowing there was no turning back,” he told the gathering, as he recounted the doubt that crept in after the heart attack and subsequent stroke. “Those old negative thoughts of giving up started to resurface in my head, but all I could think about was getting my education and my diploma.
“While I was recovering from the stroke, I read a book by Booker T. Washington, titled ‘Up from Slavery.’ When I read about the sacrifices that were made for freedom and education, I knew then, if I had to crawl on my hands and knees, if I had to be carried in, I was determined to get my diploma.”
Martin is a little older than most of the adult students who return to earn a diploma, said Cynthia D. Barnes, GED support specialist in the office of Equity and Student Support Services for the Chesterfield school system. The largest population Barnes’ office serves is the 25-to-44 age range, accounting for more than half of the students. Approximately 25 percent are younger than 25 and 20 percent are older than 44. Only about 7 percent of students are in the 60-plus age group.
But the more the merrier, and the older the better.
“We love our older students,” Barnes said in an email. “In general, they are very engaged participants and eager to learn. They have great attendance and their homework is always done! It is great to have more voices in the classroom that are encouraging the other students to persist and not give up when the work gets challenging.”
Martin is an example of that persistence, becoming “an active participant and a morale-booster,” Barnes said.
I found out about Martin from his golfing buddy Stu Watson, who told me he found Martin inspiring.
The three of us met for lunch, where I learned Martin has scored two holes-in-one over the years (actually, three, he said, though he didn’t have a witness for the third one, so he doesn’t always talk about that one). But the real story was the uncommon thread Martin and Watson share, which came to light after they had played golf together a couple of times. Watson said when they first met he had a feeling that Martin had an interesting background, so he arranged for the two of them to share the same cart for a round this summer.
“We were riding down the fairway, and I said, ‘Artos, there’s something about me not many people know, but I want to share it with you,’” Watson began. “I said, ‘Well, I actually didn’t graduate from high school, and after I retired I went back to the technical center down here in Chesterfield and I got my GED.’
“He looked at me, and I was afraid he was going to fall over dead,” Watson recalled, as Martin began laughing at the retelling of the story. “I didn’t know what was going on, but then he said, ‘I just finished mine, and I was the commencement speaker!’ And then things poured out of him.”
Watson had taken a far different path to his GED than Martin, having withdrawn from high school after his family made a series of moves, enrolled in community college to audit classes, eventually earned a bachelor’s degree, served in the Air Force and earned a doctorate in polymer chemistry and polymer engineering. He retired in 2008 as a senior vice president and technical director at Carpenter Co. after 25 years at the company.
For Watson, the GED was about tying up loose ends; for Martin, it was more.
“Anybody could do what I did,” Watson said. “Very few could do what he did.”
I asked Martin why he decided to go back. He’s retired, so even though he had recognized through the years that his lack of a high school diploma had limited his employment opportunities, at this stage of his life it wasn’t going to do him a lot of practical good. He and his wife, who have been married for 39 years, live in Chesterfield, and their children are grown and doing well, having earned college degrees — their son works in cybersecurity, their daughter is a nurse practitioner.
“I don’t need it,” he said of the diploma. “I wanted it for personal gratification. I wanted to encourage my kids that, you know, Dad didn’t just give up. I wanted to do it for them and for others who may have been caught up in the things I was caught up in [in his youth], the kids who feel they don’t have the opportunities with all the hatred and prejudices going on now. It’s so easy for them to say, ‘I quit. What’s the use?’ I just want to let them know that they should never give up.”
Martin said he’s not done. In addition to his day jobs, he has served as a pastor of the Gospel Spreading Church of God, which helped get him going in the right direction many years ago. With a GED under his belt, he’s looking into attending seminary.
“At age 60, it’s late in life,” he said, “but I think I still have a little bit in me to help somebody.”