For 58 years, Mary Canan has lived with the words "high school dropout" ringing in her ears. Last week, however, the ringing stopped and all she could hear was applause. At 75, Canan walked across the stage and proudly received her high school diploma.
"I feel so much better," Canan said exuberantly as her daughter, five grandchildren and a nephew clustered around and hugged her. "I knew I had to go back and earn this. The thought of hearing my great-granddaughters say, 'Great-grandma is a dropout,' really bothered me."
Canan, who dropped out of high school in 1927 to get married, said she intended to return years ago but never quite got around to it.
"I wanted to go back to school but my husband and I moved to a mining camp in Bingham Canyon (Utah) and there just wasn't a school nearby," Canan said. "Besides, my mother-in-law frowned on it. Whenever I talked about going back, she always said, 'What you be needing an education for? You're a married girl now.' "
Canan said that over the years, she never talked about not graduating from high school. "I never lied and said that I did graduate, but I never volunteered the information that I didn't, either."
Canan, who delivered the commencement address at the Tri-Community Adult Education graduation ceremony last Friday in West Covina, said that although she has lived a productive and fulfilling life, the fact that she hadn't finished what she started had nagged at her for years.
She told the 123 graduates and their families and friends that it was her zest for life that made her long-cherished dream finally come true.
"Bite off more than you can chew and chew it," she said, tears filling her eyes. "If you believe in yourself you can do anything. Look at me."
Canan said that after she dropped out, she found that she missed school. She missed carrying her books home and spreading them across the kitchen table to study, and she missed the bantering with her English teachers.
"When I was in school I admit I was a brat," Canan said unabashedly. "I always had different answers and I always challenged the teachers. But I don't think the teachers minded my being so difficult."
Despite her desire to return to school, Canan said, "with three children to raise and a house to keep in order, there just wasn't any time."
Instead, she read a lot. She read newspapers, old textbooks, just about anything she could, she said.
"My father believed that reading and studying for the sake of knowledge was important and, being just like my daddy, I believe the same," she said forcefully.
Canan moved to West Covina in 1954 after her husband died. She became very active, opening a restaurant, Mary Canan for Fun, and playing the piano there nightly. She also played the piano and organ for church and community functions.
Somehow, she didn't get back to school.
"I didn't have my mother-in-law around to keep me from going back to school, but something kept me from going," she said. "Maybe it was fear."
But trying to run a restaurant, keep up with her music engagements and take care of three children took a heavy toll on her. She suffered two heart attacks during her first year in California. Afraid she might have another one, Canan sold the restaurant and cut back on her piano playing.
After she recuperated, she began taking music classes and began to think again about finishing up her high school requirements. "But by then I was not only afraid but too embarrassed to return."
So instead of returning to school, Canan became a volunteer phonetics tutor at the Fred C. Nelles School, a California Youth Authority facility in Whittier.
Most of the boys she helps are dropouts who hated school and turned to crime, one official said. Canan, however, has been able to transfer her enthusiasm for learning to the boys, and as a result they want to improve their reading skills and return to school.
"I like to learn and I enjoy watching other people learn," said Canan, who greets her students with a hug and the phrase, "Have no fear, mother is here." Canan also began to do volunteer work for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and joined the hospice program at Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina, activities she continues today.
"I love to do volunteer work," Canan said. "It is my hobby. The people really appreciate you."
Although her volunteer work has always been fulfilling, she said, her dream of graduating persisted, and after her two granddaughters graduated from high school and entered college, she decided it was time to go back.
"It was hard to take that step because I had been out so long," Canan said. "But it was something that I just couldn't put off any longer."
Canan enrolled in four required classes--American government, history, American problems and first-aid-- and took an elective course in furniture repair. She got credit for the work she had completed before she dropped out and was able to complete her coursework in three semesters.
Even so, she admits she had trouble with school at first.
"After all those years, I forgot how to study," Canan said. Other students were also having problems so Canan formed a study group that worked together after class and on weekends.
"Once I relearned how to study, the classes weren't really very hard for me because, I lived through most of the things that were covered," she said. This made her popular with her classmates, who "liked to listen to me rattle on about how it was back in the old days," she said.
Canan will enter Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut in the fall and plans to take writing courses.
"I have a heart condition and I don't know how long I'll be able to continue going to school," she said. "But now that I'm back in I want to go as far as I can."