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Jim Kenyon: With Diploma in Hand, Man Reaches Milestone

  • Brandon Cushing, of Woodsville, brings a freshly baked pizza to a customer at Colatina Exit in Bradford, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. Cushing worked closely with Community High School of Vermont teacher Cory Valentine outside of normal classes to earn his high school diploma before the end of a one-year sentence in the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt. Three days before his release in November 2017, Cushing received the diploma in a special ceremony. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Brandon Cushing talks with co-worker Nara Burgess, right, while preparing ingredients for pizza at Colatina Exit in Bradford, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. "It's so hard to find people that are just straight edge," said Cushing about the challenge of making new friends and social connections without the presence of alcohol since being released from prison last November. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Sunday, February 04, 2018

Bradford, Vt. — In early 2017, Brandon Cushing had less than six months to serve of his prison sentence. His imminent release was not necessarily an unmixed blessing.

On one hand, Cushing, 23, could soon get on with his life. On the other, he’d be leaving Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., without his high school diploma.

Cushing, who had dropped out of high school as a junior, had returned to classes in prison. It appeared, however, that he wouldn’t have time to complete his graduation requirements before his release last November.

In theory, Cushing could have finished up on the outside. Community High School of Vermont, which operates in the state’s six prisons, also offers classes for former inmates in Hartford and St. Johnsbury, Vt.

But Cushing didn’t see himself having the time or discipline to do it on his own.

That’s where Cory Valentine stepped in. Cushing was in several of Valentine’s classes at the prison.

The two talked. Valentine was willing to work one-on-one with Cushing outside of regular classes to get him over the finish line, so to speak. But Valentine was straight with him — it wasn’t going to be easy to do all that he needed to do in five months.

“There were definitely times I didn’t want to go to school, but Cory pushed me,” Cushing said last week. “He definitely motivated me when I was not motivating myself.”

If Cushing failed to show for an early-morning tutoring session, Valentine didn’t hesitate to go to the housing “unit” to roust him from bed.

“It was about keeping Brandon on track,” Valentine said.

At times, Cushing wondered if it was all for naught. “Keep working,” Valentine urged. “You’re so close.”

A few times a year, CHSV holds a graduation ceremony for students who have completed their degree requirements. Graduates march in caps and gowns into the prison’s visitation room where relatives and teachers stand for the playing of Pomp and Circumstance.

At the graduation ceremony last fall, Cushing was still a bit short of earning his degree. But in early November, after Cushing had completed his requirements, Valentine arranged for Cushing to have a ceremony of his own, two days before his release.

With his parents on hand, Cushing, dressed in a cap and gown, was presented with his diploma.

“Having an official ceremony marked a true milestone in Brandon’s life that he had missed out on earlier,” Valentine said. “It validated the work he had done.”

A couple of days after Cushing was released, and living with his parents in Woodsville, he stopped at Colatina Exit in Bradford to see about getting his old job back.

He’d worked at the Italian eatery, which is something of an institution in the Upper Valley, since he was a teenager. But his conviction for grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle in which a passenger suffered serious injuries marked the second time he’d had to leave for prison.

After thinking about it for a while, the restaurant’s longtime owners, Angela and Vin Wendell, decided to give him a third chance.

“The work he’d done to finish high school showed something.” Vin Wendell said. “He impressed us with how much he’d matured.”

After starting back as a dishwasher, Cushing is now making pizzas in the restaurant’s wood-fired ovens. He’s putting in 40 hours a week, with help from his parents who drive him to and from work.

“I have a soft spot for Brandon,” Angela Wendell said. “He’s eager to get on the right path.”

A path that a special teacher went beyond the call of duty to start him on.