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JACKSON, Tenn. (AP) — Incarceration, a stroke, three jobs and a tumor stood in the way, but Steve Croom never stopped pursuing his high school equivalency diploma.
This year the 58-year-old walked across a stage in cap and gown, 42 years after dropping out of high school.
"This is my life that I lived," Croom said. "God directed my path."
Not only did Croom finally receive his HiSET diploma — the test that replaced the GED in Tennessee — but he was also named the Tennessee Association for Adult and Community Education "Learner of the Year."
Croom was headed into 11th grade when he dropped out of Chester County High School to help support his family. His older sister cared for him and his siblings after his mother died, Croom said, and the family essentially lived as sharecroppers.
"It was hard for me to just get back into school," Croom said. "I always wanted my GED, my diploma."
Eventually, Croom took a job in construction. That's when he started to be "wild and crazy," he said, going to prison for aggravated burglary and forgery.
While he started classes in prison, Croom was moved to different correctional centers before he could finish.
After being sent to prison for a second time, Croom resolved to never get in trouble again.
"I said when I leave this place, I will serve the Lord the rest of my life, and that's what I've been doing," he said.
After leaving prison in 2000, Croom worked three jobs: one at a post office, one at Monogram Refrigeration in Selmer and a third ministry role with Mt. Zion Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Henderson.
Croom's days start at 3 a.m. when he wakes, drives his wife — whom he has been married to for 13 years — from Chester County to her job in Jackson, then heads to his first job. When he gets off his second job around 6 p.m., Croom drives to Jackson to pick up his wife, who gets off work at 4:30 and waits at a friend's house until he arrives.
After a stop for dinner, the couple gets home at around 8:30 or 9 p.m. and prepares to start the routine again in the morning.
"I've been doing it 13 years. I guess I'm used to it," Croom said.
Starting his high school equivalency classes in 2011 added another layer of complexity to his life. Classes were initially from 6-9 p.m., so he would arrive late and stay until the instructor had to leave. For a time, a friend would pick up Croom's wife at her job in Jackson, so she did not have to wait until after 9 to come home.
The strenuous schedule took its toll, with Croom suffering a stroke in 2014 and having a tumor removed in 2015, causing him to miss more classes.
It was hard work, but Croom persevered until he stood alongside 36 other high school equivalency degree recipients for a graduation ceremony.
"It felt good," Croom said. "I always said, 'What does it feel like to wear that cap and gown, just to move the tassel to the other side?'"
Thomas Leach supervised the Chester County program when Croom began. He had known Croom from Henderson, but not heard his story, Leach said.
"So many people just have so many barriers and it's so difficult for them to come to class, everything from transportation to maybe family issues, health issues, childcare issues," Leach said. "Steve just didn't let his barriers get in the way. ... That should be an encouragement to anyone else that says I just have too much going on. What Steve did can show anybody else they can do it, too."
Along the journey, Croom was also found by his children, whom he had not seen for 30 years. Their mother, Croom's fiancee at the time, had lost custody of them when they were young and later died. The brother and sister were adopted and lost touch with their father, Croom said.
They were only 6 and 3 when Croom last saw them, but his daughter searched for him as she grew older.
One day, she saw a picture of Croom on a friend's Facebook page.
"He looks so much like my brother, he's got to be my daddy," she said, according to Croom.
When they finally met, they held each other as they wept, Croom said. Father and daughter talk every day as if they had never been apart, and Croom also now knows his son and two grandchildren.
For 30 years, Croom had prayed for his children, not knowing if they were alive or dead.
His daughter kept searching for her father against all odds, never giving up. Even as he never gave up pursuing his degree, Croom also never gave up hoping to find his children.
"I told her she got that from me," Croom said.
Information from: The Jackson Sun, http://www.jacksonsun.com
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