WILSON, NC – At 80, Camilla Jean Woodard resolved to fight her way through algebra class, learn to operate a computer mouse, crack the thickest book she had ever lifted and finally bring home the prize that had escaped her since age 17: a high school diploma.
She’d been waffling for years, inventing excuses to skip lessons, coming so close to quitting that at one point she hollered to her teacher, “I guess I’m just dumb!” She wasn’t, of course. Math has changed in the last six decades.
So Woodard doubled down. She took twice the courses, sitting in class eight hours a day. She whipped Windows. She fought off word problems. And in May, she set a green mortarboard on her head, pulled a silver ring on her finger and accepted the sheet of parchment that called her a graduate – a bit late, but twice as worthy. Woodard had the distinction of being oldest in her class of eight, though her close friend Mary Frederick took a close second place.
“It was a hard road, but we made it,” said Frederick, 78. “We walked across that stage together and she said, ‘I’m going to be praising the Lord so high.’ I said, ‘Don’t you embarrass me in front of all these people and your family. You’re likely to get a tear in your eye and fall down. Wait until you cross the stage to pray.’ ”
In 1953, when Woodard dropped out after the 11th grade, only about a quarter of the adults in North Carolina finished high school compared to 84 percent today. People married younger. At that time, nearly a third of the state’s population lived on a farm.
Woodard called herself an eager student as a teen. She enjoyed biology and thought about becoming a nurse. At 17, she even married the young man who drove the bus to Speight School in Stantonsburg, one of the few places in Wilson County where black children could take high school classes. But like so many others of her time, she felt a powerful tug to help her husband’s family grow tobacco and cotton.
“His family didn’t want me to stop,” she said, “but I just felt guilty.”
Mostly, life rolled on fine without a diploma. She and David Woodard later moved to Wilson, where she found work in a nursing home and then a retirement center, working her way to supervisor on the overnight shift. They raised three children together: Travis, who became a sheriff’s deputy; Belinda, who also worked in health care; and Corey, who served in the Army at Fort Bragg.
But then, as a widow in her 70s, Woodard found herself retired idle. She thought to herself, “I don’t have anything to do but sit here, and I don’t want to sit here.” So she started taking classes at Wilson Community College, on and off for six years.
She might have aimed for a GED or another high school equivalency, which generally take less time. But she chose the tougher road for a chance at the real diploma on paper – grinding through classes, credits and all.
Statewide, nearly 5,000 students worked at completing adult high school over the last year, and roughly a quarter of them graduated. On its website, Wilson County’s adult high school program warns that students must complete 25 courses to graduate: math, science, social studies, English and electives. Classes run from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday or 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and the duration depends on the student. Tuition and books are free, but a diploma costs $5.
And while 80 may seem too distant an age for a graduate, a Virginia woman earned her diploma two years ago at 111. Four years ago, a 106-year-old man accomplished the same in Massachusetts. Woodard enrolled carrying eight decades of wisdom, but the last time she’d stepped in a classroom, Dwight Eisenhower was president and astronauts were 15 years from walking on the moon.
Woodard tried to be reasonable. She recalled telling one teacher, “Listen, I’m not hard to catch on. Show me one time, and I promise I can do it.”
The teacher declined. So Woodard tried again.
“Just show me,” she said. “I’m not hard to catch on.”
After a third rejection, Woodard shouted, “Well, I guess I’m just dumb then!”
“Get out,” said the teacher, banishing Woodard from class like she’d been caught chewing gum.
Alone in the break room, crying to herself, Woodard wished privately for a way to proceed without this obstacle of an instructor. She composed herself and got back to work, her nemesis firmly in place. But three weeks later, as if by answered prayer, the teacher announced she would be moving out of the class.
“In my mind,” Woodard said, “I said, ‘Lord, I thank you.’ ”
Woodard didn’t want an easy ride. She didn’t ask for adult education with kid gloves, and she didn’t get it. Another teacher told her, “Don’t come in here with your head down. You’ve got a brain like anybody else.” And when he handed her a novel with the thickness of a telephone book, she complained, “It’ll be 2020 before I finish this book.”
Months later, Woodard can’t even recall the title of this tome. But she slogged through it. And when she burst into class, triumphant, announcing she’d finally reached the last page, the teacher said, “No, you haven’t. Somebody told me it would be 2020 when she finished. It’s still 2016.”
When Woodard crossed the stage, diploma in hand, her family beaming up from the audience, she caught that patient teacher’s smile out in the audience.
Diploma safely in hand, Woodard followed her children to celebrate at Golden Corral, where her niece gave her an umbrella full of dollar bills – a graduate’s rainy-day gift.
And now that she’s finished the task that took roughly six years, Woodard gets asked if she’ll tackle college next. She scoffs. What would she do with a college degree at her age? She’s content with her cap, gown and ring. The girl from Speight School finally got her chance to pull her tassel and strut across a stage, cameras flashing from below.