A long journey to diploma
33-year-old graduating from virtual school
The nights of work, the hours of hope, amount at last to this day of joy.
Soft tears began welling in the eyes of Nicole Williams Wednesday morning. Sitting inside her office at the Basehor-Linwood Virtual School, Williams was attempting to write a card meant for her student, Donna Lewis of Kansas City, Kan.
The words weren't coming easily and the task of trying to top those already inscribed on the card, penned by poet Maya Angelou, was a daunting one. That's not why Williams' emotions rose to the surface, though.
They emerged because Williams, interim director of the virtual school, began thinking of where Lewis, a 33-year-old high school dropout, had come from vs. where she would be Thursday night.
"It just grabs you and takes hold of your heart," Williams said. "She's impressed us as much as we've helped her."
After a while, joy replaces sadness and Williams' words began to take shape.
"I absolutely admire what you have accomplished," she writes. "I think it takes a very special person to hang in there like you have, even through all of the difficulties you have had to overcome.
"Congratulations. You made it."
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 12, more than 130 Basehor-Linwood seniors will wear cap and gown and accept their diplomas during graduation ceremonies inside the high school gymnasium.
Lewis, a mother of two children and a parts counter at U.S. Boatworks in Armourdale, will be among them.
The majority of students graduating will be 17 and 18 years old. They will have lived with their parents and earned diplomas in the traditional sense, by attending four years of high school classes. It took Lewis approximately 16 years.
To her friends and family, the timing is inconsequential. The important thing is the destination, not how long it took to get there, they said.
Like Williams, emotions ring in the voice of virtual school director Brenda De Groot when commenting on Lewis' accomplishment.
"I'm getting choked up just talking about it," she said. "Watching her walk across will be very special." She added, "The rest of their lives people regret not doing what they should have at 16 or 17. To her credit, she's been able to amend that, to erase that."
In some ways, Lewis' story is a precautionary one, but if so, then it also serves as a tribute to the influence of education, as an example of good parenting and a case of fierce determination overcoming long odds.
It's the story of an underdog and it begins with a teenager leaving behind a troubled home in Kansas City, Mo.
On her own
At 17, Lewis walked away from a turbulent home life and moved in with friends. Forced to pay her own bills, Lewis quit school at Harmon High School in Kansas City, Mo., and took baby-sitting jobs to get by. Though she didn't want to leave school, Lewis said her life improved because she no longer lived in "a house that was messed up."
For the next 11 years, Lewis would help raise three of her stepchildren as well as 13-year-old, Crystal, and 11-year-old, Jonathon.
At age 29, she enrolled in the virtual school to set an example for them.
"I knew if I didn't have a high school diploma I wasn't going to make it at anything," she said. "Plus, I wanted to show my kids if you want a good job, you have to graduate high school and maybe even college. You need to learn as much as possible. You need to stay in school. Don't do what I did."
She began her coursework at the virtual school with just four credits; the state requires at least 21 credits for graduation. For the last four years, Lewis has juggled a full-time class load with raising kids and working more than 40 hours a week.
During the week, Lewis would work a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift. Then she would come home, tend to the kids and later study or complete homework for two to three hours a night. On the weekend, she would put four to five hours a day into her school work.
"Everyone kept asking me, 'How do you do it?'" she said. "I don't know. I just did. My family really helped me out and the girls (at the Virtual School: Williams, De Groot and Gaylene Obendorfer) really helped me. They were always there when I needed it."
Her daughter, Crystal, would occasionally help her mom with her studies. Crystal, a straight-A student at Sumner Academy, said she'll be as proud as anyone Thursday to see the culmination of her mother's hard work.
"I'm going to be really excited for her," Crystal said. "She's worked really hard. Now that she's gotten through it, I think it's really cool."
Lewis said her favorite subjects in school were business law and sociology, and one day she hopes to work as a photographer. Her least favorite subject? That's easy, math.
"I would have gotten done a lot sooner if it wasn't for that dang algebra," she said.
Williams said the transformation she's seen in Lewis in the last four years has been remarkable. She came to the virtual school without a driver's license or any self-confidence, not to mention a diploma. She's leaving the school armed with each of those things, Williams said.
"It's like night and day," said Williams, adding that Lewis' next goal is to land a job that provides benefits, namely health insurance, for her family.
"Four years ago she wasn't thinking that way. Benefits and things like that weren't part of her vocabulary.
"That's what she's striving for right now -- to better her family."
The Big Day approaches
It's a calm Tuesday night in Kansas City, Kan., and the day's bright skies are giving way to the oncoming nightfall. Lewis lives in a neighborhood on North 37th Street, west of Quindaro, and her home is a modest split-level with a neatly manicured lawn like many others in the area.
Lewis and her husband, Chester, haven't done badly for themselves -- they work hard and provide a decent life for their children -- but they also want something more. Better things in life could be had, Lewis said, but it takes an education to get them.
It's a lesson Lewis, a soft-spoken woman, has preached to her children with the ferocity of a minister spouting fire and brimstone. She will continue do so in hopes that one day they might do something she might never have the chance to --- earn a college degree.
Lewis said that she'd like to attend college one day, but that she's going to delay those plans so she can focus on sending her children. That's one of a parent's primary responsibilities, she said, to provide the children with better opportunities.
"If I could go to college I would," she said, "but they come before I do."
For now, Lewis is content with walking up the stage Thursday night and grabbing the hardware she missed out on more than a decade ago. A large contingent of friends and family, between 15 and 20 people, will be in attendance, cheering for her Thursday night as will Williams and De Groot.
"It's not everyday a 33-year-old graduates from high school," De Groot said. "It really is amazing. I would definitely say she's one of our prized students."
Lewis said she'll wear a big smile when her name is called over the gymnasium's loudspeakers. Then, reality will finally set in that the goal she set four years ago has been completed. It's been a long time coming, she said, but well worth the wait.
"I'll probably have cold chills up and down my body," she said. "I'll be overwhelmed. I didn't know if I'd get this far, but I did. Hopefully my kids will see it and want to do the same thing, but in a different way."