While walking home from class with a knapsack strapped to his back, the full-grown student joyfully waves to a fellow classmate. A smile crosses his bearded face before he heads into his Rutland home, another completed hurdle in a long-awaited journey.
Twenty years ago, Dan Bakersfield decided to drop out of school without receiving a high school diploma.
Bakersfield, now 37, has returned to his old stomping grounds and is currently a full-time student at Rutland High School. After his 20-year hiatus from school, Bakersfield plans on finishing something he had started a long time ago.
“You obviously can’t go back in time, but I am fortunate that we live in a world where a person can get another chance,” he said. “This is my opportunity to show family and friends that I am serious about getting a diploma.”
Twenty-year leave of absence
Before his departure from school, the Rutland native was a B-student who claims he had a knack for making his fellow classmates laugh.
“School was so much fun back then,” Bakersfield said, with a grin as wide as a football field. “My teachers generally were nice to me, and I enjoyed being in that classroom setting with my friends.”
In early October, 1986, his world would take an abrupt turn as his then-girlfriend, Julie Simmons, became pregnant. While Simmons chose to take night classes during her pregnancy, Bakersfield dropped out of school completely.
“I had to get myself a couple jobs in order to provide for my new family,” he said. “We were short on money and finishing high school was, unfortunately, the least of my worries at the time.”
Bakersfield was working many hours each day, whether he was helping customers at Toys R’ Us or repairing cars at his friend’s shop.
“I hated what I was doing and would have rather been at school, but what else was I supposed to do? We had a kid at a young age, and bills needed to be paid,” he said, before shaking his head with a guilty look on his face.
The couple would get married in December 1987, months after their oldest son, Steven, was born. Years would pass before Bakersfield was able to relax and contemplate the decision he made as a teenager.
“Once we were set with money and raising our kids, I would sometimes ask myself ‘what if I went back to school for a year to graduate,'” he said. “I knew I’d look silly for being the only 30-year old wearing a stupid backpack, but it was something I needed to do.”
The Comeback Trail
Bakersfield, a father of two, is eligible to graduate at the end of the school year and receive his high school diploma. He is taking eight classes, including economics and calculus.
His wife, Julie, believes that watching Steven graduate from high school last spring was an inspiration for the former dropout.
“When we came home from our son’s graduation, Dan told me he was going back to school,” she said with a smile. “At first, I thought he was just trying to make me laugh, but he was really serious about it.”
Peter Folaros, principal of Rutland High School, has become friendly with Bakersfield and is a big fan of his efforts in the classroom. According to both Folaros and Bakersfield, the two meet once a week to discuss the student’s progress.
“Dan has done a wonderful job keeping up with his classes,” Folaros said. “It’s a shame he didn’t graduate when he was supposed to, but Dan is setting a great example right now for our students to achieve their goals no matter the road blocks.”
Bakersfield walks to school everyday from his house, which is two blocks away, and refuses to drive for a particular reason.
“I always see kids walking to school instead of taking the bus or driving to school, which is different for me because I used to take the bus,” he said. “Since I’ve been out of school for over 20 years and never made the walk from my house, why not try it now and get some exercise.”
With Steven, 19, spending his first semester at the University of New Hampshire, and his 11-year-old daughter in middle school, Dan Bakersfield is focused on making the grades and leaving Rutland High School with the ultimate reward.
“I don’t care what other people are saying about me,” he said sharply. “I am not leaving that school until I graduate. I owe it to my wife and kids.