Joan Deebank sat among rows of graduating high school students less than a quarter of her age Tuesday afternoon, with a smile so bright it sparkled under the stage lights.
She waited almost eight decades to attend high school, and as a member of Island ConnectEd’s Class of 2018, she’s the oldest graduate the Ministry of Education can confirm has ever graduated from a B.C. high school.
She’s 92 years old.
“I’m just so happy, I never thought this would happen,” said Deebank, before the ceremony at VIU’s Malaspina Theatre.
While her fellow graduates grew up in the age of iPhones and social media, Deebank lived at a time when the world went to war and colour TV first came into living rooms.
She was born in Hastings, Sussex, not far from London, in 1925 as one of five children, and while she attended school, her mother kept her home about three days each week to clean the house. At 13, her father broke the news that she wouldn’t be going to school at all.
“The head teacher went to my [dad] and said I was brainy and that I needed to go to school and that I had the potential to go to high school, because that’s the kind of person I was, and my dad said to him, ‘I don’t care what the hell you have to say, I keep her, she’s going out to work and she’s going to earn her keep.’”
All the children in her family had to go to work except for her younger sister Florence, who she said was her father’s favourite and was allowed to attend high school.
From that time, life just got in the way of education.
When she went out to earn her keep, it was in the domestic service. Every day she’d go through a routine that included cleaning the brass outside the door, whitening the steps, lighting the kitchen fire to cook oatmeal and taking tea to her employers. She made 14 shillings a week and every Friday her mother would be outside with her hand out for her wages.
At 16, she lied about her age to enlist in the British Army and became an officers’ cook.
She’d volunteer to take buckets of coffee and tea to soldiers shooting at planes during the Second World War, taking the cups off their belts, filling them, and placing the refreshments at their feet.
She ended up marrying a solider and having five children, and continued to work a variety of jobs. In 1959, the family moved to Guelph, Ont. where she was employed as a housekeeping supervisor for the University of Guelph and at Guelph General Hospital, cleaning instruments and preparing the operating room.
But Deebank never gave up learning and always grieved the lost opportunity to attend high school.
“She would cry talking about how she didn’t get her education, literally tears,” said her daughter, Sonia Lightfoot, who decided to approach Island ConnectEd last year, when her mother was 91, to hear what the possibilities were for her mother’s education.
The staff at ConnectEd, a program of Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools, came up with a personalized learning program so Deebank could get her adult Dogwood certificate.
“If all the learners had the enthusiasm for learning that she brings to it, the world would just be a better place,” said Island ConnectEd principal Patrick Young.
Teacher Kim Pepler said Deebank is compromised health-wise and getting older and that she still managed to pull this off is “remarkable and inspiring.”
“It just makes me absolutely recognize as long as you’re alive, you should keep on living and learning,” she said.
Deebank says she’s a “whiz” at math and loves history. She’s also loved the experience of going back to high school.
“I love it and every time I love it, I look up there and say ‘see dad, I can do it.’”
On June 19, the school district held its graduation ceremony for students of Island ConnectEd. Three of Deebank’s children watched from the audience, phones raised to capture the moment she walked across the stage.
Deebank won’t finish her classes until July, but the school let her graduate early so she wouldn’t have to wait for the next ceremony a year from now.
A Ministry of Education spokesperson told the News Bulletin that before Deebank, the oldest confirmed graduate was 91 years old.
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Joan Deebank stopped going to school at 13 when her father told her she had to go out and earn her keep. This week the 92-year-old graduated in #Nanaimo w/ her adult dogwood. Read her story here: https://t.co/eXHVeQRIZP @NanaimoBulletin @sd68bc pic.twitter.com/L8JeP6MmkW
— Tamara Cunningham (@tamaracunning) June 21, 2018
“It was so emotional,” said Deebank’s daughter Ann Gillham, about the graduation. “She’s worked so hard and she’s had so many setbacks in her life that we’re so immensely proud and happy that words fail.”
Deebank said she wanted to prove to her sister Florence, now 91, that she’s going to get her high school diploma and now that she has, she’ll hold it up for a picture and send it.
Dogwood in hand Tuesday, Deebank said her sister will be very proud of her.
“I never got to go to high school and she did, so now I am so very happy,” she said.