2019-01-09 / News

At 66 and 72, two Memphis women earn high school diplomas

By JENNIFER PIGNOLET
The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Bettie Morris and Alice Savage lived nearly identical lives before meeting in 2016.

They both grew up on farms, forced to quit school to tend to the fields and animals. They both became custodians in the former Memphis City Schools. They raised children and grandchildren.

And on a recent Saturday, they earned their high school diplomas together.

Morris, 72, and Savage, 66, walked or, more accurately, Morris danced, skipped a bit and hopped with joy across the stage in green caps and gowns at the Goodwill Excel Center's graduation on Saturday. They both earned the school's Per- severance Award.

The crowd, led by their family entourages and fellow graduates, erupted at the announcement, whooping as their ages were announced.

The day marked an accomplishment decades in the making. They each said they'd wanted to go back to school at some point, but life had other plans.

``It's been a long time coming,'' Savage said, noting she tried to go back to school twice before but had to withdraw both times.

``I have always wanted my diploma but never had an opportunity to get it,'' Morris said.

The Excel Center, a school for adults to earn a full high school diploma, gave them that opportunity.

Savage attended the school part time for nearly four years. Morris began in 2016 and attended full-time.

``At the beginning, it was harder than I thought it was going to be,'' Savage said.

They had to take algebra 1 and 2, two classes of Spanish, biology, chemistry, and every other credit required for a regular high school diploma.

``It was hard at first and it was scary,'' Morris said, noting she'd been out of school for ``some years'' and had never used a computer.

Savage, who only finished the sixth grade as a child in Mississippi, said the Excel Center teachers and counselors kept her going.

``If it wasn't for them pulling me in, I might have thought about leaving again,'' she said.

They both cited their children and grandchildren as motivation.

Morris, who has four children, 10 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, said some of them dropped out of high school.

``I went back to show them it's not too late to go back,'' she said.

But for both of them, it was also about putting themselves first after decades of raising their families and working.

``It's just been something in the back of my mind,'' Savage said. One of her custodial jobs was even at Messick Adult Center, the school district's former high school equivalent degree program.

``I did not want to leave this world without my diploma,'' Morris said.

Savage joked she'd waited so long for a diploma, she doesn't know what to do with it now. She's considering a certificate in nursing.

``I'm not going to be working too much, though,'' she said. ``I've been working all my life.''

Morris called it an ``enjoyable ride'' returning to high school in her 70s. Some of the other students in the class called her ``Mama.'' As a selfdescribed hard worker, Morris said it was important for her to finish what she'd started more than 50 years ago.

``I'm proud of me,'' she said.

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