- Associated Press - Friday, May 18, 2018

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - When Geraldine Washington got pregnant as a teenager in the 1960s, she dropped out of East High School in Wichita.

Back then, she said, you didn’t have a choice.

She went on with her life, had four children and 13 grandchildren. She worked at an aircraft manufacturing plant and drove a school bus. She lived for years as a single mother, lost a daughter, survived cancer, kept going.

She tried a few times to get her GED, but life always got in the way.

When one of her granddaughters got pregnant as a senior in high school, Washington implored her to stay in school and graduate.

“I pushed and I pushed, and she did finish,” Washington told The Wichita Eagle . “Then she told me, ‘Nana, you’re always trying to tell somebody what to do. Why don’t you go back and get your diploma?’”

Washington - known as “Miss Geraldine” to friends and colleagues - had only two high school credits at the time. She needed 23 for a diploma.

She didn’t know how to use a computer or even how to power one on. She’d never ventured onto the internet. She would have to become proficient enough to review coursework, research topics and complete tests online.

That was three years ago. Later this month, the 71-year-old Washington will walk across a stage with the rest of her classmates from Chester Lewis Adult Learning Center and finally receive her high school diploma.

“It means a lot,” Washington said. “I have 13 grandchildren, and I try to encourage each one that this is what you need in this time and age. … When I was coming up, you could get by. But now, man, it just means the world to me. I’m glad that I went back, I’m glad that I got it, and I’m proud.”

Cindy Cisneros McGilvrey, a teacher at Chester Lewis, said Washington began her studies well behind most students but accelerated quickly and became a fixture at the school, which is run by the Wichita district. Classes at the school are completed online, but teachers are there to guide students who need extra help.

Computers “were just a completely foreign language” to Washington when she began, McGilvrey said.

“She didn’t know what a space bar was. She didn’t know how to open a tab or how to toggle between windows or how to use a mouse or anything,” McGilvrey said. “But she just embraced it and asked lots of questions. … She became so comfortable that she actually got a laptop at home, and she would work well into the night. The more classes she completed, the more comfortable she became.”

She also got comfortable at the school, good-naturedly ribbing younger students who got behind on their class work or threatened to quit the program.

“She’d say, ‘What’s wrong with you? I’m a great-grandma, and I’m already on unit two, and you’re still on unit one,’” McGilvrey said. “She’s always very firm but loving - not judgmental at all.”

Washington made a friend at school - Janice Jordan, a youngster still in her 50s - and the two often would work on assignments together. “We call them the Golden Girls,” McGilvrey said.

Several times during her three years at Chester Lewis, Washington considered quitting. She struggled through geometry particularly, she said.

“It was an experience - the reading, the math, everything was so different, because it’s been 50 years since I’ve been in school,” Washington said. “I’d have people say, ‘Why are you putting yourself through that? You don’t even need a diploma.’ And I’d say, ‘I know, but I want it. When you want something bad enough, you keep going.”

She completed her required credits in October. The diploma she will receive at the Chester Lewis ceremony on May 22 won’t count toward the district’s graduation rate, which is calculated based only on students who finish in four years. But it’s just as meaningful and well-deserved as any diplomas being given this season, McGilvrey said.

Miss Geraldine is one of those people that, if you give her a glimpse of an opportunity, she just capitalizes on it,” she said. “She went to summer school every day.

The whole school knows Miss Geraldine is, McGilvrey said.

“When she comes into the classroom, she still walks around and touches everyone on the shoulder and asks how they’re doing,” she said. “She’s always encouraging. And her words have power, because the other students know she had challenges, just like they do.”

Washington continued to visit the school for guest speakers and other activities after she had completed her diploma, McGilvrey said. Now she hopes the great-grandmother will continue her studies.

“When I’d talk to her about going further in school, she’d say, ‘I just want my diploma. All I need is my diploma,’” the teacher said. “And I just keep saying, ‘Are you sure? Because you’re pretty good at this.’ … It’s absolutely inspirational.”

Now that she’s finally done with high school, Washington said, she’s starting to contemplate post-secondary studies. She might attend a community college or technical school and take classes in interior design or event planning, she said.

“It’s good to see the young ones (in school), but you’ve got to keep going no matter how old you are,” Washington said. “This was one of the hardest and the best things I’ve ever done, but it sure makes me proud. Yes, it does.”


Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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