Nellie DeCoteau heard it so often growing up – “You can’t do anything right. You’ll never amount to anything” – that she almost came to believe it.

By the time she was 16, she’d dropped out of her South Paris high school. DeCoteau had been ill and away from class for two years and everyone seemed so far ahead of her. She didn’t believe she could catch up.

For years, DeCoteau fought against the you-can’t-do-anything-right echoes in her head. She had various careers, including nurse’s aid. At age 40 she earned her General Education Development certificate. She even served on the board of Poland Spring Academy, the private school founded by her daughter.

But for decades it nagged at her: She wanted that high school diploma.

This week, after months of work to meet state graduation requirements – including classes in home economics, gym and math – the 78-year-old great-grandmother graduated from Poland Spring Academy. In cap and gown Friday evening, she became a member of the Class of 2009.

‘I don’t know why you can’t’

Although she’d always wanted her high school diploma, DeCoteau didn’t seriously consider trying to get it until last January, the day she watched her grandson graduate from Poland Spring Academy. She broached the subject with her daughter, academy President Roberta Howard, as they drove to their Oxford home from the ceremony.

“I’d like to get a diploma from your school,'” DeCoteau told her, thinking her daughter would tell her not to bother.

Instead, Howard answered without hesitation, “I don’t know why you can’t.”

Howard had earned a GED herself before going on to earn a master’s degree and credits toward a doctorate. She devoted her career to adult education and in 1999 opened the private, independent Poland Spring Academy to cater to those children and adults who didn’t do well in larger, traditional schools.

Although they must meet the same state requirements they would at any Maine school, students work at their own paces at Poland Spring Academy and receive lessons that are tailored to them. Work can be done at home or in school, making it a popular choice for adults who want a diploma but who are shy about participating in classes. The school’s two yearly commencement ceremonies always contain at least one graduating adult.

“When I started the school, I really wanted all ages to get a diploma,” Howard said.

DeCoteau would be the school’s oldest student.

By law, DeCoteau needed 18 credits to graduate. She received five credits for the skills she accumulated over her lifetime and the three credits from the work she did to earn her GED. She would have to earn the other 10, including credits for history, science, math, home economics and gym.

Most of the work was done at home by herself or with tutors. She tried taking classes with the school’s teenagers but was uncomfortable.

“She felt like she was in competition with the kids,” Howard said.

Because she loved to read, DeCoteau’s easiest subjects were English and history. Gym and home economics – she started a walking regime and did housework – weren’t too much of a problem, either.

DeCoteau’s hardest subject was math. It had been more than 60 years since she first went to high school and some concepts just didn’t come easily.

“I couldn’t remember how to do fractions,” she said. “My head was so tired.”

During the day, while the house was quiet, DeCoteau filled workbooks, created portfolios and took tests. Her grades averaged in the 90s, but the work was hard and often frustrating. She considered giving up more than once.

“My daughter just kept telling me I could do it,” DeCoteau said.

Her daughter was right.

Five months after she announced that she wanted a diploma, DeCoteau finished high school. Of the 19 graduating Poland Spring Academy students, four were adults.

“I’m looking forward to just being one of the grads,” she said the week before the ceremony.

DeCoteau, who turns 79 in June, is happy enough with her high school diploma. She’s not planning to go to college.

“No way. I’ve had it. My poor head won’t take it,” she said.

But for other adults who want their high school diplomas, she has some advice.

“Go for it, that’s what I’d tell them. It’s worth it,” she said.


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