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Graduates prove it's never too late for caps and gowns

Sandy Andrews, director of Rock Hill adult education, left, pins a graduation cap on student speaker Lorraine Belk before the adult education graduation at Rock Hill High School on Thursday night.
Sandy Andrews, director of Rock Hill adult education, left, pins a graduation cap on student speaker Lorraine Belk before the adult education graduation at Rock Hill High School on Thursday night.

She worked on the speech for two hours, on lined notebook paper with the spiral metal rings on the side like high school students have used forever. Revising the words, crossing out what didn't sound right.

When it took 25 years, work at three textile mills and one manufacturing plant, and raising three children, the high school graduation speech you give better be great.

It was.

Lorraine Belk stood on the stage at Rock Hill High School before 29 people just like her in the audience wearing black caps and gowns, with gold "2007" on the tassels on their mortarboard caps. She stood before their families. Parents, children, grandchildren. She thanked her kids.

"Their accomplishments, they inspire me," she said.

Son Genaco, a college graduate, sat in the auditorium. Daughter Lasonya, a college graduate, was close by. Lasonya did not smile Thursday. She glowed.

"My mother," she said of Belk, "waited all these years to do what she helped us to do."

Belk's husband of 25 years, Theodore, was there, too. He videotaped anything that moved. A big night. Her mother, Fannie Baxter, was there and looked like a million dollars.

Belk talked of perseverance.

Perseverance in her case was getting pregnant in the 10th grade and working ever since. She was laid off from her job last year after 16 years on her feet and went back to books after trying to restart so many times.

"If you believe it, you can achieve it," Belk told the crowd.

Her speech lasted about 45 seconds, maybe a minute. The crowd rose and gave her a standing ovation.

Lorraine Belk graduated from high school Thursday night. On July 9, she starts college.

She is 42 years old.

Belk and 122 others this past year went through the Rock Hill school district's Adult Education or General Equivalency Diploma classes. These are people who didn't fit in at regular high school, or didn't like it, or had any of 123 reasons to leave.

But each went back. Some went back by bus or hitched a ride. At least one girl took the GED test with a pregnant belly so big nobody knew for sure if the test would finish before the baby came.

School failed them, or they failed school. Yet, all came back.

Nobody in the program had higher test scores than 20-year-old Jason Rockholt. A guy who four years ago said, "School wasn't my thing," so he quit and started working.

He rose at work, made good money, then the company died.

He went back to school for his GED. His family watched Thursday night. He, too, is headed for college.

Before the ceremony, the auditorium seemed like a high school graduation like any other. But then these 30 people between ages 18 and somewhere on the far side of 40 walked across the stage to get diplomas. It took maybe 10 minutes.

They were proud, and some in the audience hooted and cheered even though graduation rules forbid applause until all graduates cross the stage. Some of those people in the audience cried and cheered at the same time.

Yet these graduates didn't walk. Some strode. A few seemed to float.

All these people who were supposed to fail did not.

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