Judy Renton, draped in a bright blue graduate’s gown and a cap with a dangling gold tassel atop her head, made her way across the stage.
She shook hands with a Spring Hill, Kan., school board member and took a firm hold on her high school diploma binder. A broad smile spread across her face.
High school seniors everywhere these last few weeks have been the subject of similar pomp and circumstance, but for Renton last Saturday’s ceremony had bigger meaning. It had taken her a lot longer than the traditional 12 years to get where she was.
Renton lost her right lung to cancer five years ago, and she crossed the stage a bit slower than the other graduates.
She hadn’t wanted to drag her clunky oxygen tank through this special ceremony. And, she thought, it might be just one more thing that would make the 55-year-old grandmother stand out among the 108 teen and young-adult classmates graduating with her from the Insight School of Kansas, an online public charter school.
“Graduating from high school is a big accomplishment for all of us,” the teenage salutatorian told her classmates.
An understatement, Renton said, laughing through a raspy cough. Renton said that according to her doctors, she was supposed to have died four years ago.
“But I just kept fighting,” she said.
Now the cancer is in remission and Renton is a high school graduate.
Renton dropped out of high school at age 16 after giving birth to her first child. She knew she needed a diploma and she really wanted it. “I kept going back to night school trying to get my GED, but it was just so hard,” Renton said. “I couldn’t crack the math, the science. I just wasn’t able to get it into my brain.”
She quit and went to work doing construction and concentrated on raising her two children and her sister’s two kids. Renton said she never missed an opportunity to tell the four children to “get your education. Don’t you ever give up, no matter what.”
In the United States, more than 30 million adults do not have a high school diploma, according to World Education, an international literacy organization. According to the GED testing service, in 2012 more than 272,500 adults in Kansas did not have a high school diploma. In Missouri that number was 756,500.
Renton did not want her children modeling her — struggling as an adult to go back to school and “get what I should have gotten when I was a teenager,” she said.
She had moved to Kansas from Pomona, Calif., when the children were young “to get them away from street violence.” She wanted a better life for them.
They are all grown now, and Renton thought the shame she had felt when she couldn’t help her kids with their homework was all over.
Then grandkids came to live with her at her home in Clay City, Kan.
She was especially inspired by a grandson, Demitrius, to return to school and get her diploma. Renton recalls her grandson coming to her for help with his homework.
“I couldn’t help him,” she said. “I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t do the math. I just felt so stupid.
“When he was about 7, he made me promise that I would go back to school and get my high school diploma,” Renton recalled. “He even drew me a picture of the two of us dressed in cap and gown holding hands”
When she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, Renton was enrolled in a vocational-tech school in Manhattan, Kan. But she wasn’t going to get a diploma there, only credit for enough high school basics to help her earn a computer technology certification.
“I remember I had promised my grandson I wouldn’t leave this earth without a high school diploma,” Renton said. “I wanted it all.”
Her son, Everett James, remembers visiting his mom, and “everywhere she went, the couch, the kitchen table, everywhere, she was on that laptop studying,” James said. “I’ve seen the hard work she was putting in. I was really proud of her.”
Renton even carried school work on her laptop to her chemotherapy treatments. She could get online and join her class, talking via computer with teachers and other students. “It was like they were right there with me all the time,” she said. “When I didn’t understand something, they didn’t leave me until I got it.”
Even the algebra.
Fighting cancer, she said, “has been a struggle, but I thought the algebra would kill me. It was the worst part.” It finally clicked.
Renton said she and her grandson, who is now 13 and in eighth grade in Abilene, Kan., had a deal, and she has kept her end of it.
“Now I can tell the kids I did it, you can too,” said Renton.