When she was young, her father sent her off to a convent, but she sang Elvis while she scrubbed the floors, so they sent her back. Joanne McNaughton was fine with returning to high school. She would have loved it, even, if it were just the studying. She once wrote a poem about frog dissections that landed on the front page of the student paper. But she was overweight and had buck teeth and the other girls let her know it, every day.
So on Sept. 3, 1957, the day before her senior year started, McNaughton dropped out at the suggestion of a boyfriend. Two weeks later, she tried to go back to her school on the north side of Chicago. But they told her it wouldn't be fair to the other children, that she had taken a little vacation. They wouldn't take her back.
It would be more than half a century before she finally donned a cap and gown. It happened Thursday evening at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, part of the annual ceremony Pinellas County schools puts on for adults and students who miss regular graduations in the spring.
After leaving school in Chicago, McNaughton took a job in insurance, quitting 10 years later to raise her children. In 1975, she moved to St. Petersburg, where her second husband's parents lived. And that would have been that.
Except for the bleach-blond boy who keeps darting in and out of the house.
McNaughton is 72 now, turning 73 in less than two weeks, and has retired along with her third husband, Harold, in the Disston Heights neighborhood. She has 24 grandchildren. Several have dropped out of high school.
She was upset when the last one did, last year. She had helped raise him when his parents couldn't. Her grandson had always been so smart. But things hadn't been so good since his father passed. He lives with her and Harold now, 18, not working, not saying a word as he moves from room to room or goes outside to smoke or pace or ride his bike just for a little while.
McNaughton enrolled her grandson in the GED program at Dixie Hollins High School. But he got so nervous. He started shaking, and it wasn't drugs. It was hard to explain. He dropped out.
And so McNaughton signed herself up.
"It's been on my bucket list for many years," she says. "I decided I have, unfortunately, three grandsons that are not finishing high school. I just wanted them to know how important it was for me. So I thought if I go back to school and I get it, then I can say, 'Okay, grandma got it, why not you?' "
She was the oldest person in the course. The youngest was 16. She didn't know how to use the computers. She wrote all of her essays by hand.
Math, in particular, was tough for her. It had been many years since she had solved for X, and she hadn't really understood it the first time around either. Sometimes she thought about quitting. She didn't think she could pass the math portion of the test.
But the big, brown envelope that came in the mail in January said otherwise.
"It's like I never finished the circle. It's part of the puzzle of life, and I finally found that puzzle piece," McNaughton says. "It took me 55 years, and I did it."
She sat down her grandson, the one who lives with her and who was always so smart. He promised he would go back, get his GED too.
McNaughton doesn't think young people really get it. When she was 17, she hadn't realized that she couldn't do much of anything without a high school diploma. She couldn't study blood diseases at the University of Richmond like she'd wanted to do. There are so many things she wishes she had done.
The GED program at Dixie Hollins accepts students throughout the year. They can sign up any time. It has been about seven months since McNaughton's grandson told her he would go back. He hasn't yet. He paces, he smokes, he rides his bike.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).