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Roger and his GED quest

Now living on the streets of St. Petersburg, he hopes a high school diploma will be his passport to a normal life.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 30, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG

Long after the other students in his adult education class have gone home for the night, Roger Laracuente labors over an essay titled "One Important Goal I Would Like to Achieve." The 57-year-old, who has lived on the streets for two years, has so many goals he doesn't know where to begin. He wants an apartment so he won't have to carry his possessions everywhere he goes. He wants a good job. He wants people to respect him instead of hurling insults and stones at him.

He also wants to empty his pockets at the end of the day without worrying if someone will steal the precious scraps of paper upon which he's written the addresses of his sisters, his ex-wife and the son he hasn't seen for three years. Someday when he's accomplished something, he says, he'll get in touch with them.

He knows one thing has to happen before he can realize any of those goals: He has to earn the high school diploma he's been working toward since last summer.

In the next few weeks, he'll find out if he passed the GED test. But he has no idea when - or if - the other things he craves will come to him.

"That hasn't been written yet," Roger said. "It's a blank."

* * *

Gary Bond, an adult education teacher with the Pinellas County School District, didn't know what to make of Roger when he showed up six months ago in his classroom at the Salvation Army on Fourth Street S.

Roger, who dropped out of high school at 15, told Bond he had spinal arthritis and Tourette's syndrome. He appeared to have a learning disability. He isolated himself from the other 22 students in the General Educational Development program. When Bond told him his first practice essay was "off topic," he got angry and disappeared for four days.

But he came back. He kept coming back, five evenings a week, even after he had exhausted his 12-day free stay at the Salvation Army.

Bond began lending his own books to Roger and giving him extra assignments. He got him access to the district's adult education libraries so he'd have a place to study on weekends. When Roger started making eye contact with him, he knew school had become "a positive, shining star" for him.

As the holidays approached, Bond encouraged Roger to apply for a job as a Salvation Army bell ringer. When Roger got the job - his first in two years - Bond gave him a couple of his dress shirts so he would look sharp standing outside the Winn-Dixie.

Bond says he's as proud of Roger as he is of any student he's known in two decades of teaching. He thinks Roger is ready for the work force, and he hopes an employer will see his worth.

"I'll do everything I can to get him a job," Bond said. "I'll call everybody in the city if I have to."

He knows that's what it could take to find a job for a man five years from the age at which many people retire.

* * *

Roger's internal clock wakes him at 3:30 a.m. He does pullups from a nearby tree limb, then rolls up his blanket and stashes it in the bushes. Six mornings a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, he dressed in his bell ringer outfit - black jeans, one of Bond's white dress shirts, a black vest he pulled out of a used clothing bin and an old ball cap he found "at the beginning of homelessness" - and rode the No. 29 bus to Pinellas Park.

He arrived at the Winn-Dixie hours before his 10 a.m. shift. Some mornings, he spent the time perusing the 938-page GED test prep book he carries in his backpack. Other mornings, he opened a tattered Bible he found in the trash and scribbled questions for God in the margins.

He says he's always been a questioning sort of person. It got him into trouble with teachers at his Long Island high school and led him to drop out, although no one seemed to care. He got a well-paying job in a New York silk screen factory and fell in love with a girl who was "perfect in every way." He was married at 18 and was a father before he turned 19.

A decade later, he was divorced and losing ground in the silk screen industry because he couldn't keep up with new technology. Over the next 25 years, he made eyeglasses, drove a truck and cleaned bathrooms.

He moved to California in search of a warmer climate a few years ago but wasn't able to find work. Within two months, he had come to know the stigma of homelessness. He felt the ache of having no place to go.

"People started crossing the street when they saw me coming," he said. "I had seen them treat other people that way, but now they were doing it to me."

He landed in St. Petersburg a year ago and lived on nothing but a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread for the first two weeks. More than 20 pounds melted from his 5-foot-5 frame.

Then he heard about the GED program at the Salvation Army. Finally realizing that he wasn't eligible even for the lowest-paying job without a high school diploma, he began coming to Bond's classroom five evenings a week. It became the one place, he says, where people treated him with respect.

"I was having normal conversations with people," he said, "not bizarre homeless conversations."

* * *

It's a point of honor with Roger that he's never begged for money. Once in a while, people offer him spare change, which he's accepted. He makes sure they know he doesn't drink or smoke, that he uses the money "for something good," like doing his laundry.

He's eligible for food stamps, which provide him with $6 worth of food a day. Some days he goes without so he has more food on other days. He eats dinner at the Salvation Army.

He knows there are a lot of portable toilets scattered around downtown St. Petersburg, but he knows better than to use them. "Little by little," he says, "you learn where to eat, where you can use the bathroom."

Some things you never get used to. Like the horror of diarrhea when you're homeless. Like the shame of having people drive by while you're trying to sleep and yelling, "Get out of here. Go away."

Sometimes, Roger says, he feels like he deserves the abuse. Sometimes, he wonders if he'll ever be "normal" again.

He prays every day to a God he isn't sure is still listening, asking him "to remove the demons who try to clog my brain." He hopes his sisters and his son - and his ex-wife, whom he says he still loves - will forgive him for not turning out the way they wanted.

Being homeless, Roger says, has made him reflective. He's come to realize people aren't always as they appear, that everyone has a story. He's become protective of the elderly, the handicapped and the poor. And he's come to appreciate the gifts that come from people like Bond.

While he waits for his test results, he'll work with Bond to craft a resume. He'll try to find another job. And he'll enroll in an eight-week computer course at Tomlinson Adult Education Center.

"Everything involves pain," Roger says. "It's part of the game of life. But I ask myself: Is my belly full? Are my needs met? Then I start counting my blessings."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413.

Fast Facts:

To learn more

-To learn more about the GED program at the Salvation Army, call Gary Bond at (727) 709-2162.

-For more information about the Pinellas County School District's other adult education sites, call (727) 588-6321.