For One Dropout, Gaining Self-Respect Was the Best of Many Valuable Lessons

STEVE HAYDEN attended the Community School in 1982. He had dropped out of high school two years before that as a 17-year-old freshman. He heard about the school through an announcement on the radio and realized, he says, that at 19 - just under the school's 16 to 20 age limit - this might be his last chance for getting a high school diploma.

Steve is one of the youngest in a family of 10 in Easton, a town in Maine's rural Aroostock County known for its potatoes.

``All my brothers and sisters did real well in school. It was expected of you,'' he recalls during a conversation in the school's living room. ``But being toward the end, I was kind of a rebel.''

He had the advantage of attending a Head Start program in his town, but when he hit first grade, Steve says, he came up against a strict teacher who normally taught junior high school. From that point on, he says, ``all school was negative.''

The next few years were a tale of truancy, hiding out in the woods, and being held back in school.

But in seventh grade, he says, he met that same teacher who had taught him back in first grade. Now she seemed to understand what he was going through, he says, and gave him a copy of the classic children's story about youthful independence, ``My Side of the Mountain,'' by Jean C. George (Dutton, 1988).

That bit of encouragement helped him for a while. His grades picked up enough to make the honor role. But by the time he reached high school, the positive energy was gone and he dropped out. Steve took a dead-end job at a potato processing plant and nurtured a marijuana habit on the side.

WHEN he arrived at the Community School for an interview, he liked the place immediately and was eventually accepted.

``I was definitely not the perfect student,'' he says. ``I got in trouble, particularly because of the pot smoking. But I got some seed planted in my head. It was a very positive experience. I had to take a crash course in almost everything.''

After graduating, he went on to technical school, but he realized he had never totally kicked the drug habit.

At one point he was allowed to return to the Community School and spent another six months there as an administrative aide, helping with transporting kids to their jobs and other tasks.

During that time, he stayed away from using marijuana. But on leaving the school for the second time, he was tempted to take it up once more.

He seesawed for a while, but ``I could never get high happily again,'' he says. He finally kicked the habit for good.

Through jobs and training courses he had picked up skills in glass cutting, welding, and carpentry. For a number of years now he has worked at the Foreside Company, a Camden firm that imports crafts and decorative items from India.

The most important thing he gained from the school? ``It provided self-respect.'' After the structured, purposeful time there, he says, he knew that ``if you had a drug problem, you could shake it.''

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