Joyce Clements stood at the podium, took a deep breath and began reading from the prepared text of the keynote speech she wrote for the evening’s graduation.
“No rain, no flowers, means that on my journey, there was rain,” Clements began, “and now there are flowers.”
Clements, 64, delivered her remarks during her May 15th graduation from the General Education Development (GED) program of Rowan College at Gloucester County. It took her 21 years to get to the podium, trying and failing so often to pass her GED exams that she thought this day would never come.
So, she asked the audience rhetorically, “What took me so long?”
And she told her story.
She grew up in North Philadelphia, the oldest of nine children and left school after the first year of junior high. She helped her divorced mother raise her siblings and eventually entered trade school to become a nurse’s aide. She wanted to become a full-time nurse, but she couldn’t read or write.
She married, raised two kids of her own, and became a security guard at Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel & Casino, "making more money and proud of my efforts,” she said, even getting promoted to a dispatcher role.
One evening in 1999, a casino patron called dispatch for help with a man who was “inebriated.”
“This was a word that I had never heard of before,” Clements told the audience. When she asked her supervisor what it meant, he shamed her, called her ignorant, and poked fun at her weak vocabulary.
She was transferred to Caesars Atlantic City Hotel & Casino as a floor security guard, the same job she still holds today.
Insulted and frustrated, Clements decided to use the slight as an opportunity to pursue her dream of earning her high school diploma. She enrolled in the Lifelong Learning High School Diploma Program at then-Gloucester County College.
On work days, she’d leave her Somerdale home at 2 p.m. for her night shift, drive to the Lindenwold PATCO Station and take a bus during the week and a train on the weekends to Atlantic City. She’d study textbooks on the ride, then during work breaks pick up where she’d left off. She wouldn’t get home until 1:30 a.m. but would be in her GED class at 8 a.m. sharp.
"I made the choice to keep going,” she said.
The GED course consists of four sections: language arts, social studies, science and math. Clements had trouble reading and writing, and numbers and letters looked more like a jumbled mess than a cohesive language, constantly confusing her right with her left. Over the course of her 21 attempts, she passed all but one section — math. That was the only thing between her and her diploma.
In 2015, she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia and at last had a clinical explanation for why she could barely write her name, recognize words, or decode written language. She was directed toward special-education tutors like Ann DeMareo-Smith, who has been tutoring dyslexic students for more than 20 years.
“Math is a different language,” DeMareo-Smith said, “Joyce brutally struggled with it.”
Each year, Clements would attend the GED graduation ceremonies even though she herself wasn’t getting a diploma. She wanted to support the students she’d studied alongside. And every year she would say, “I’m going to get this.”
Before Clements’ last attempt on April 16, Catherine Fisher, a past graduate and former classmate who was inspired by Clements’ persistence, paid Clements’ cap and gown fee, hoping it would give her confidence in the exam room.
Brigette Satchell, dean of Rowan’s Workforce and Professional Development Institute, happened to meet Clements in the parking lot before she took the test.
“Each time she would always be nervous,” said Satchell, who by then knew Clements well. “That was the first time I’d ever seen Joyce calm.”
After speeding through the math portion, Clements assumed she had failed again, and attempted to rush out before the allotted time was up.
“Go back and give it another look," urged moderator Glenn Shockey, who’d also gotten to know her well. “You still have time left.”
So she did. And she passed.
“Sometimes we are tested,” Clements told the audience at Rowan. “Not to show our weaknesses, but our strength."
To end her speech, she announced that her new dream is to become a nurse. Then she let out a deep breath, and received a standing ovation.
Satchell had the last word of the ceremony, pointing out from the dais that 178 students passed the GED exam taken at RCGC, but only 13 people (including Clements) walked in graduation.
“Oftentimes, people feel as though getting their high school equivalency is something ‘less than,’ so many of them don’t want to celebrate their achievements,” Satchell said. “And I say to you, ‘Share it with the world.’ "
And that is what Clements did, by moving the golden tassel on her cap — from right to left.