Joseph Martinez plops his tasseled cap on his head and swears he is not nervous.
It is Thursday afternoon, mere minutes until the start of the 2013 YouthBuild graduation, and the other blue-gowned graduates are sweating the details.
Which aisle do we walk down? Whose hands do we shake again? When do we turn our tassels from right to left?
Joseph does not ask any questions.
“I'm calm,” he swears.
Joseph showed up for graduation four hours early — arrived at noon for the 4 p.m. ceremony.
But that's because Joseph has shown up early almost every day for the past 10 months to this same building, to this Goodwill Omaha program that combines classroom work and construction work.
Before that he spent a decade stealing from good and bad people. He saddened his parents again and again. He spiraled so far into a drug-fueled darkness that he knew — he was absolutely sure — that he'd end up either living in a jail cell or bleeding to death on the street.
So, no, Joseph Martinez is not nervous.
And, no, today is not an ordinary graduation.
It is a last chance. It is a long shot.
It is a lottery ticket — a ticket that Joseph Martinez scratched and clawed to hold onto once he finally realized its true worth.
“I've never finished nothing in my whole life,” Joseph says calmly. “I'm going to finish this.”
Martinez and 29 other young adults lived on the outer margins of Omaha society when they entered the Goodwill headquarters for their first YouthBuild class last fall.
The nine-month federally and privately funded program seems simple enough: It's three hours of GED classroom instruction in the morning followed by three hours of working on construction projects, such as homebuilding or woodworking, in the afternoon.
But consider: Almost every one of the 30 students selected for YouthBuild this fall had previously dropped out of high school.
On the first day of classes, not a single student read at above an eighth-grade level, according to Goodwill's entrance testing. Most had math skills similar to an average 9-year-old.
And academics aren't actually the toughest adjustment for the young adults who enter YouthBuild.
Many aren't used to authority figures telling them to be on time, or punishing them when they are five minutes late.
Many have trouble getting to school because they don't own cars, and have trouble getting a baby sitter for their children because they don't have reliable child care.
Some have trouble completing the forms to enter the program; it is normal for the three-person YouthBuild staff to help students get photo identification and locate their Social Security numbers. When you live on the margins, there's not much need for things such as a driver's license or a Social Security card.
Whenever there is a murder in Omaha, YouthBuild coordinator Miriam Blair knows that she will go to work the next day and at least one of the YouthBuild students will know — or be related to — the victim. Or the shooter. Or both.
“The valedictorian (of this YouthBuild class) has never attended a graduation before,” Miriam says as she sits in her office. “It's not just that she hasn't graduated. She literally has never attended the graduation of a relative or a friend. Not one time. Think about that.”
Even in this crowd, the 24-year-old Joseph stood out as a particularly iffy YouthBuild participant, Miriam says.
Joseph doesn't disagree. He stopped paying attention in school at age 9, when he got jumped by a South Omaha gang outside his grade school. Rather than being upset, he remembers feeling intrigued: How did the gang leader command so much power and respect that his young disciples would fight for him?
By 16, Joseph had become an accomplished thief. He used drugs and also treated them as currency, often trading them for things such as car rides or a place to stay. He was also a high school dropout; one day, he simply stopped going to Omaha Central High School, he says. Or maybe he got expelled. He doesn't remember.
He has lived most of his adult life crashing on friends' couches, trying to stay one step ahead of street foes and the police. He teetered on the edge of homelessness and found himself increasingly numbed to violence.
“Just kicking down doors to get money to get drugs” is how Joseph describes his everyday experience until the fall of 2012. “A lot of people have a hard time dealing with death, but once you see it all the time — the people who got robbed, people on the street who do that sort of thing — it becomes normal.”
Joseph almost didn't apply for YouthBuild. His father, Joseph Sr., pleaded with him for months.
You need this, son. You need to do this.
Nah, Joseph said. No, I don't.
Until the day he thought “Maybe I do need this” and filled out the paperwork.
Even then, Miriam almost didn't pick Joseph for the class, in part because there's a waiting list of dozens of other applicants and Joseph had failed to complete several other GED programs in Omaha.
So, yes, she was a little surprised when Joseph cruised through the 10-day tryout, at the start of YouthBuild, that is nicknamed “Hell Week” and is designed to weed out the weakest participants.
During Hell Week, the doors are locked at 9 a.m. sharp. If you are a minute late, you miss a day of credit and a day of pay for building houses.
There is no cursing, no talking back to the instructors, no disrespect, nothing but classroom work and construction.
“I turn into the Wicked Witch of the West,” Miriam says. “And I don't know if you know this, but construction work is haaaard. You can't go run the streets all night and then do construction every day. You won't make it.”
Miriam was even more surprised when Joseph started showing up a full hour early for class, sitting outside and waiting for the staff to unlock the building.
She almost fell off her chair when she learned why: Joseph was rising at dawn most mornings and walking to YouthBuild from his home near 24th Street and Laurel Avenue.
The Goodwill headquarters, where YouthBuild is held, is at 72nd Street and Ames Avenue. That's a five-mile, 90-minute walk. Why so early? Because Joseph knew that, just after dawn, his friends who could persuade him to skip class as well as his enemies who could try to hurt him had one thing in common: They were asleep.
“I used to believe that you either have work ethic or not,” says Miriam, who came to Goodwill from a longtime job as a legal assistant. “Now I realize hard work can be taught.”
Joseph says he was a little surprised himself when he didn't hate the three-hour GED classes. He wrote about his experiences on the street. He did trigonometry. He enjoyed school for the first time since the fourth grade. And this spring, he got the good news: He had passed the GED.
In the afternoons, he and the other students would work on a north Omaha construction project, demolishing and renovating low-income housing. Joseph knocked down walls. He learned how to use power tools. He painted.
He built things with his hands.
He liked all that, too.
How is this for a long shot? A chance encounter at a bus stop led to Joseph scoring a job before he had even earned his YouthBuild diploma.
He's now working part time at a Famous Dave's restaurant. It's not glamorous, and it doesn't pay all that much, but it gives Joseph enough money for rent. It gives him something else, too. It feels good. It feels … honest.
But Joseph won't work full time yet, he told his new employer — he needed to keep walking to the Goodwill headquarters.
He has plans to become a plumber's apprentice — to train for a career — but that would have to wait until August, too.
He needed to finish the YouthBuild program. He needed to finish what he had started.
And so the first strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” begin to play over the loudspeakers, and Joseph stands in his blue gown in the hallway and waits his turn.
Lord knows that not everything associated with a lifetime of poverty and drug abuse and violence evaporates the second you put on a cap and gown. Lord knows there are so many things that could go wrong, have gone wrong, for some of the best students to pass through YouthBuild since it began in Omaha in 2005.
But not today.
Not as Joseph Martinez emerges from the hallway, walks to the right aisle, shakes the right hand, turns his tassel at the right time … and smiles the biggest graduation smile you will ever see.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the class of 2013!” Miriam says into the microphone at the ceremony's end.
Joseph and the rest of the blue-gowned graduates toss their caps into the air. Joseph's sisters cheer. His mother cheers. His grandmother cries.
Joseph's father has taken the afternoon off from his job as a forklift operator in a warehouse.
He stands up and pounds his hands together so hard they turn red.
So, no, this is no ordinary graduation.
It is a long shot, and it is a last chance, and it is a hard-earned lottery ticket.
It is all those things. It is also the best graduation I've ever attended.