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'Redneck Woman' sings teacher's praises

  • Story Highlights
  • Country singer Gretchen Wilson earned her GED 20 years after quitting school
  • Educator Bernadine Nelson helped Wilson along the way
  • Wilson and Nelson promote the importance of adult education
  • Wilson's achievement has inspired others to get their GED, Nelson said
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LEBANON, Tennessee (CNN) -- A tumultuous home life forced country music star Gretchen Wilson to grow up quickly.

Bernadine Nelson, left, and Gretchen Wilson want to raise awareness about the importance of adult education.

Bernadine Nelson, left, and Gretchen Wilson want to raise awareness about the importance of adult education.

"I was one of those kids that was brought up in kind of a crazy environment in the home, and I just thought I'd be better off if I could get out there and start doing it my way," said Wilson, 35.

So at 15, she quit school and became a bartender in her Illinois hometown.

From that point on, Wilson focused her attention solely on surviving and making music. In 1996, she moved to Nashville to pursue her dream of being a country music singer. Despite setbacks along the way, she found success in 2004 with the release of her first single, "Redneck Woman."

"I had big dreams like most local musicians do, but the chances of this having happened for me were slim to none," said the Grammy Award winner. "Without [an] education, I'd have been pouring drinks for the rest of my life."

Until earlier this year, Wilson was one of the millions of Americans who haven't finished their high school education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 43 million people have dropped out of high school, and one in five Americans are functionally illiterate.

Though she was a successful musician, Wilson said she became more determined than ever to finish her education. So, at age 34, she decided to get her GED -- and it was educator Bernadine Nelson who helped her.

"I didn't have to go back and get my GED, but it was something I really needed to complete me as a person," Wilson said.

Wilson reached out to the local adult education center in Lebanon, Tennessee, where she met Nelson, the center's director.

"[She] greeted me with a huge smile on her face and welcome arms," Wilson said. "She promised me above all that I'd be able to stand in that line and be proud of myself. She became an instant hero in my eyes."

Nelson held true to her word. A year later, Wilson received her GED, crediting the achievement to Nelson's support and encouragement. Together, they're now raising awareness about the importance of an education and encouraging people to say, "I can do that too."

Though she had been a teacher for decades, Nelson, 62, didn't realize the scope of under-education in America until she began working in adult education roughly six years ago.

"It was an emotional thing to me because I kept thinking, 'What can I do? How can my little job help?' " Nelson said. "But I know it does, because every single person I've helped helps the big problem." Video Watch Wilson describe why Nelson is her hero »

In addition to overseeing the center, Nelson has become an outspoken advocate for adult education in Tennessee, speaking to community groups and holding a weekly guest spot on a local radio show. She believes the benefits of an education are priceless.

"Having a GED or high school diploma gives you more self-esteem and a better opportunity for a better job," Nelson said.

Since 2002, Nelson has helped more than 1,050 students receive their GEDs. And she said she knows that many others will follow in Wilson's footsteps.

"Gretchen came to the program because she wanted to fulfill this void that had been missing for all these years for her," Nelson said. "I don't think she realized how much this would speak to other people. Her fans are legion. If their role model, the Redneck Woman, could get her GED, then ... maybe they could too."

Since Wilson received her GED in May 2008, Nelson said, several people have already called her, citing the singer's achievement as inspiration for obtaining theirs.


For Wilson, Nelson's dedication to bringing the importance of education to the forefront of people's lives is making a difference.

"She's bound and determined to put that sense of pride back into these people who felt that they've lost it," Wilson said. "That's not only respectable, it's admirable."

All About EducationGretchen Wilson

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