After years of thinking he simply couldn’t learn, Kevin Shelton, 36, is now the proud holder of a high school equivalency degree, referred to most people as a GED, thanks to hard work, a lot of help from the teachers and staff at Rock Hill’s Adult Education Center, and support from his biggest fans and inspiration – his family.
From the time Shelton was a boy growing up in Reidsville, N.C., the traditional education system failed him, both literally and figuratively.
He was held back, or made to repeat, his kindergarten year. Then he had to repeat first grade. In the third grade, he suffered a serious injury that left him homebound for months.
After that, despite Shelton’s enormous holes in his education, his schools kept passing him along. It was comprehension that was his biggest problem. He could read something, but never did well with understanding it, Shelton said.
“In the 10th grade, the principal called me into her office,” Shelton said. “She said the good news was I could graduate sometime, but the bad news was it wasn’t going to be with my class.”
Shelton was 21, the maximum age for a high school student. So, he left, and started working, and didn’t look back.
“I knew I was a worker,” he said. “Manual labor is something that I enjoy doing.”
So he worked. For years, Shelton never went without a job. He moved to Rock Hill, got married and worked.
But in 2004, he thought that something might be missing and signed up to try to get his GED. He tried the online classes, but they weren’t really for him. A few years later, his first son was born and Shelton’s world was changed.
“I wanted to read to him, so I just kept on reading,” he said.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, Shelton read. And the comprehension problems that had plagued Shelton when he was a student started to go away.
“That made me understand, I was able to learn the whole time,” he said. “It just took me a little while.”
When the economy took a nosedive during the recession, Shelton, who’d worked nearly every day of his life since leaving school at age 21, was without work.
So, he decided to go back to school and enrolled in the GED prep classes with the Adult and Community Education program at the Flexible Learning Center in Rock Hill. And that’s where he met numerous teachers who helped him through the next few years, including Kristy Austin.
Austin said she sees students of all walks of life come into her classroom, ready to finish what they started in high school.
“They’re at the point in their lives where they realize that education is important,” she said of her students. “They want to better themselves.”
Austin and Shelton bonded over their shared love of math, Shelton said, which comes easily to him.
“He always wanted to know more,” Austin said. “He was one of those students who was eager to learn everything they could.”
During her time as a teacher at Adult Education, Phyllis Moore said she’s heard a lot of impressive stories of students overcoming obstacles, but Shelton’s story stands out.
“He’s an example for other people to say, ‘You know, I’ve got a lot to overcome,’ or, ‘I’ve got a lot to do,’ but they can do it, too,” she said.
When Shelton started, Moore said, he was behind where many other students start academically, but that only made him work harder, putting in more hours and more effort than any student she’d ever seen. The only word to describe his journey, she said, was “perseverance.”
After countless hours studying both in and out of the classroom, Shelton passed his final test late last fall and participated in the December graduation ceremony, where he spoke to his fellow graduates and their family and friends.
Winslow Shock, a community leader who said he’s been to his share of adult education graduations, called Shelton “remarkable.”
“He should serve as an inspiration to every student pursuing their degree,” Shock said.
Both Shock and Austin enjoy telling the story of Shelton and his leather bag, which was given to him by a friend at church and he carried to every class throughout the pursuit of GED.
It made him feel serious and official, Shelton said.
A few days after he passed his final test, Shelton brought the bag in and gave it to a friend of his in the program, another young man who’d been working on his GED almost as long as Shelton, to inspire him to persevere and finish strong.
“I just wanted to give it to him, hoping that we was going to pass,” Shelton said of the gesture.
And he did, just a few days after the December graduation.
As for Shelton, he’s hunting for a job that puts his newly acquired degree to use to build a better life for his family, which now includes four children instead of just the one son who inspired him to go back to school.
He said he hopes his experiences teach his kids to go after what they want and to never accept that it’s too late to change their lives.
“Every day, an opportunity comes around,” Shelton said. “You just have to take it day by day.”
Rachel Southmayd • 803-329-4072