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Without a high school diploma, 'who wants to talk to you?'

Alexander Cornwell, 48, does paperwork at the Fort Lawn Community Center, where he spends time studying to earn his GED. Cornwell has been unemployed since June 29, when he left the F. Schumacher & Co. plant after being laid off.
Alexander Cornwell, 48, does paperwork at the Fort Lawn Community Center, where he spends time studying to earn his GED. Cornwell has been unemployed since June 29, when he left the F. Schumacher & Co. plant after being laid off.

FORT LAWN -- Alex Cornwell sits at a wooden table working fractions with a pink pencil.

These fractions, adding and subtracting them, stand between him and a GED, the document he needs to get before searching for another job.

He needs a GED because he dropped out of Chester High School during his junior year. The 48-year-old needs a job because he's been unemployed since 2 p.m. on June 29, when he left the F. Schumacher & Co. plant after being laid off.

"It comes back to bite you," he says of choosing work over finishing school.

The third of his mother's nine children, Cornwell grew up in a single-parent family in western Chester County.

At 17, he started working at the Lockhart Mill, sweeping floors in the housekeeping unit. During his 18 years and four months at the plant, he worked his way up to the maintenance department.

He knows dropping out of school wasn't the right decision. But times were different then. He said education wasn't a big issue when you could walk right across the street and get a job.

He was forced to look for work when the mill closed. A few weeks before turning 35, he was looking for a new career. He bounced around a few places before coming to Schumacher.

"It wasn't the best job, but I was satisfied," he said. "I made a pretty good life out of it."

He planned to stay there for awhile. Then, the writing on the wall became visible a few years ago when there was a massive layoff on the other side of the plant from where he worked.

When the layoffs finally came through his department, "it was just like Hugo," he said.

"They just come up one day and tell you it's over," he said. "We knew we were going to be laid off. You just didn't know when."

For the last few months, Cornwell has been coming to the Fort Lawn Community Center, studying to get his GED. A friend recommended the school, saying he could get the one-on-one training he needs here.

"You ain't got a high school diploma or GED, who wants to talk to you?" he asked before answering his own question. "Nobody."

So, he comes here three days a week, four hours a day. In just a short time, he's already made an impression with his teachers, not only for his study habits but also for his kindness.

When Cornwell learned the center provided snacks for its students, he started bringing bags of them, said Kelly Shugart, a basic skills instructor at the center.

When she told him he didn't have to do that, he told her: "I want to do my part. I eat them, so I thought I would bring them, too."

"Not too many people feel that way," she said.

Cornwell hopes to earn his GED and get a job as a truck driver.

He needs a new industry. There are no mills to run to.

"The (textile) jobs ain't there," he said.

Cornwell now sees the value in education that he missed as a teenager. When his 13-year-old daughter brought home low grades, he gave her a lesson that fathers give to their kids when they want something better for them.

"Life is education," he said. "I preach that (to her). 'You will not fall short, not like I did.'"

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