“Age is nothing but a number. You are never too old or too young to learn.”
Sharmaine Thomas’s message to this year’s graduates of the Adult Education School was heartfelt.
Like them, she was receiving her GED after a personal struggle, but the other students were in their teens and early twenties. She was 45 years old, a grandmother times three.
“It felt like something had been lifted from my shoulders,” she said, recalling her joy at finally getting her diploma on June 25.
“This is something I wanted to do for years but never had the courage to do. But this is not it for me.”
Mrs Thomas got pregnant at 17, in her last year of high school in Jamaica.
Although she successfully completed her exams she was too embarrassed to attend the ceremony. “No one told me I couldn’t go to graduation, but I just didn’t go,” she said.
Her son, Jermaine, was born in 1991; a daughter, Sasha-Kaye, followed in 1993.
Although she needed to work, she never followed up with her high school to secure the diploma that would give her access to better paying jobs.
“I just didn’t go back for it at the time,” she said. “My parents never thought of going back for it. It would have been difficult.
“It was just confusing at the time. I left school in 1990, before everything was computerised, so we couldn’t just ask to have the records sent. It was a different time.”
Wanting to make something more of her life she took a nail technician course.
She was working in a salon when she met Bermudian Ranville Thomas Jr.
“He had dreadlocks then,” she said of her late husband who, with his family, ran the Jamaican Grill on Court Street. “We started talking and he slipped me a note afterward asking if I wanted to meet on my day off. We really hit it off.”
Over the years they stayed in touch. Their daughter, Njeri, was born in 2004.
“When she was 2 I took her to the doctors and they were asking about her medical history,” she said. “I called Ranville and he said, ‘Well, I’ve just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.’ That was how I found out about it.”
The pair married in 2012, and she and Njeri moved to Bermuda shortly after.
“Ranville and I were together 18 years,” said Mrs Thomas, who helps with the family business. “He fought congestive heart failure for nine years. He died last October.
“I think he was just tired. There were a lot of things we wanted to do together. To not see it happen, I have the ‘I wish’ all the time. I wish we had more time.”
The GED was “a distraction”, a way to get her mind off her grief.
She passed her English and social studies courses easily. Maths was a problem.
Sharon Hayward, a teacher at the school, gave her a booklet designed to help and Njeri, a student at the Berkeley Institute, tutored her whenever she was having trouble.
“It was a challenge because I am working, plus I had other stuff to deal with,” Mrs Thomas said. “In the mornings, when I didn’t have work, I would sit outside in my car and do my homework and have a coffee.
“There are no distractions there. If I did it in the house I’d always find myself doing something else.”
Only a month into her studies and only days before the school’s graduation ceremony, Ms Hayward urged her to take the final exams. “[She] had so much confidence in me,” Mrs Thomas said. “I really appreciated that.”
On the morning of her maths exam she was so flustered she worried she might hyperventilate.
“I had a lot of emotions playing,” she said. “When I came out of the exam I was shaking because of my nerves.
“It’s done on the computer so it doesn’t take them very long to get back with the results.
“When I opened up the e-mail I was shaking because I was nervous.
“I didn’t know what it was going to tell me. I just felt like I wasn’t centred in my mind. When I saw that I passed I started to bawl.
“The first person I called was Ms Hayward. When she answered the phone I couldn’t even speak.”
The teacher asked her to speak at the Adult Education School graduation which was held at Chubb, the reinsurance firm on Woodbourne Avenue.
“Beforehand, I started to pen some stuff then thought that will just be too long,” Mrs Thomas said.
She told the crowd of 20 graduates and their families: “Whatever it is you want to achieve in life, go for it.
“Age is nothing but a number. You are never too old or too young to learn. You learn every day.”
It was only at the graduation that she learnt that she’d scored the highest in her class in maths; her weakest subject had become her strongest.
She was awarded the Winston Laylor Award for excellence in the subject as well as the Adult Education School maths award.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
After the ceremony an older man came up and hugged her.
“He said I was an inspiration,” she said. “It is mind-blowing that I might have an impact on someone else. It is amazing that I might have inspired someone with my story.”
Njeri made her beam with the words, “I’m so proud of you mummy.”
Her older children in Jamaica also called to congratulate her.
“Their words meant so much to me,” she said. “And I know that Ranville would have been so proud of me.”
Her dream is to become a dental assistant and, maybe, one day a dental hygienist.
“I am a people person,” she said. “I think I want to go into dentistry because of how well I am treated when I go to the dentist.
“I think I am going to start by taking courses at the Bermuda College.”
• Learn more about the Adult Education School at www.aesbda.org