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Finishing what they started

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When Darlene M. Hess crossed the auditorium stage at Case Middle School, 37 years of shame of never having earned a high school diploma were erased. At 53 years old, the Adams resident has earned her General Education Development diploma.

She and 75 other students graduated from the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Services GED program Thursday.

Mrs. Hess was one of three commencement speakers who talked about the hardships of overcoming the odds to return to school.

“I was 16 when I quit school for family health reasons,” she said afterward. “I actually worked all my life.”

Although she left to attend to sick parents, she did not feel noble; she felt embarrassed. Whenever the topic of graduation or high school came up, she was the first to change the subject. She said she thought others would look down on her and judge her for not finishing at South Jefferson High School.

“If someone doesn’t have a diploma, you get judged,” she said. “No one knows why someone quit school.”

She worked at the Covidien plant for about a decade until she was laid off because of the plant’s closure in 2010. Approximately 274 jobs were cut that year.

“When they closed, she couldn’t find a job without a diploma,” said Jefferson-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Jack J. Boak Jr.

During her speech, Mrs. Hess said she waited so long to start school again because she was afraid of failing. She was afraid she would be judged.

“I felt like I could not and would not go through with this,” she told the crowd of more than 200. “There I was, starting over in school after 37 years.”

She learned to face that fear head-on when she did not pass algebra the first time she tested for the GED. She credited the support of her husband, daughters and grandchildren, all of whom attended the ceremony, as the reason she persevered.

“It takes family, it takes friends, it takes perseverance and commitment for an adult to go back and get their education,” said Tina M. Frederick, supervisor of adult and continuing education.

She said 450 people are served every year through the BOCES GED program. More than 90 percent of students who get the diploma end up at a higher learning institution. However, not all of them make it across the graduation stage come June.

Speaking to a reporter after graduation, Mrs. Hess described how she showed up for class every day but saw some of her younger classmates get frustrated and drop out.

“I saw so many young people come in and start class. They’d only be there for a couple weeks, but then it scared them,” she said. “I’d like to add the one important lesson I learned is that you’re never too old to learn. I can’t stop talking about my diploma.”

She has already started working at her alma mater as a substitute teacher.

Although she left 37 years ago, she has made it full circle to watch over students as they attend the trials and tribulations of class and teenage life.

“In a way, it touches my heart,” she said.

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