Nova Scotia

'Learning is awesome': High school senior graduates 50 years after dropping out

A Nova Scotia woman has celebrated her high school graduation day — more than 50 years after she dropped out.

'Your brain can regenerate. You have a capacity to learn whatever you put your mind to,' says Wendy Thistle

Wendy Thistle said her life changed when she went to Queens Adult High School in Liverpool, N.S. (Submitted by Queens Adult High School)

Wendy Thistle's life changed on March 11, 2019. 

"I don't have any artfully crafted words to describe the journey, except that I have a strong faith that there is a powerful force that guided me to enter Queens Adult High School," said the woman from Brooklyn, Queens County.

"I knew it was the right decision."

Thistle, 69, had dropped out of high school more than 50 years earlier. She got a job as a cashier. She married and had kids.

"I wore the shame or guilt of not having graduated with my friends at that time," she said. 

Loss of identity

When her marriage suddenly ended last year, she felt stripped of her identities. If she wasn't a daughter, wife and mother, who was she? She decided she was a student and set the goal of earning her high school diploma. 

When a teacher asked her to cut and paste something, she warned them she would need scissors and glue. Her teachers challenged her to learn how to cut and paste on a computer.

"Your brain can regenerate. You have a capacity to learn whatever you put your mind to. It's easy to say, 'I can't do that.' Yes you can. If you can dream it, you can do it."

She graduated on June 22 with more than a diploma. She received a community service award from her MLA, a bronze medal from the governor general for her 94 per cent grade, a leadership award and a certificate of academic honours with distinction. 

"I was blown away and am still in awe," she said. "Learning is awesome. You can learn anything you want."

'Makes the classroom brighter'

Sonya Eddy, who taught Thistle, said she often brought coffee and treats to the class, along with a burning desire to learn. 

"She's an all-around sweet person to have at the school. One of those people that makes the classroom brighter," Eddy said. 

Earning her diploma was the first thing Thistle had done just for herself in decades, according to Eddy. 

"The [graduation] day was very emotional. I was glad I got to witness it. I got goosebumps because I knew how much it meant to her. She was shaking with emotion."

Ian Kent, another teacher, met Thistle years ago when he was friends with her daughter. He remembered her as a "community mom" who was always serving her family and her community. 

She told him she worried she was too old and had been out of school for too long. 

"Once she realized that she had the ability to learn, she kind of flew," he said. "She was able to transfer her skill set quickly."

Kent said Thistle has run a seamstress business for many years. She secretly created toiletry bags filled with essential supplies to donate to the local women's shelter.

"She takes no credit for it and often goes out of pocket to do it," Kent said. 

When COVID-19 struck, she retooled her business to make personal protective equipment and soon landed a contract with a long-term care home. 

Through adversity to the stars

Thistle said one thing stuck with her from her Grade 9 Latin: per ardua ad astra — through adversity to the stars. 

"I don't know what stars I'm being led to, but what I've learned now is whatever I want to reach for is not out of reach," she said. 

She bubbles with excitement when she talks about her future. "It's just like I'm full of static. Learning is a burning thirst. You just have to keep doing it and doing it," she said. 

"It's one of the best decisions that I've made for me in my life. I'm not sure where I'm going with it, but I know I'm going somewhere, I'm going to do something. And it all came with taking that first step into the Queens Adult High School."

Thistle waited a long time to throw her hat in the air. She doesn't know where her education will take her next, but she's excited to find out. (Submitted by Queens Adult High School)

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