Going back to school was an important decision for elders Fanny and Eric Mack, though it could not have been an easy one.
For a start, neither one of them had been to school in half a century. School has changed, the entire world has changed in those 50 years. They’re grandparents now. There was some family encouragement from the outset, though.
The Port Alberni couple crossed the floor Thursday night, June 21 at Alberni District secondary school to accept their certificates after completing Grade 12 through adult learning with Nuu-chah-nulth Employment and Training Program (NETP).
“Our son, Eric Jr., encouraged us,” Fanny explained shortly after classes wrapped up for the year. “He graduated from here and asked, ‘Why don’t you guys go back?’”
Now, in their own way, they’re encouraging others.
“We’ve already been an inspiration to a few elders who’ve signed up for next year,” Fanny said.
Growing up Tseshaht, Fanny attended A.W. Neill elementary in Port Alberni. She continued her schooling after relocating to Ucluelet. Still a teenager when she met Eric there, she didn’t complete her high school education. They celebrate 46 years of marriage on June 30.
Eric Sr. decided to register with NETP at the same time, finally taking the time to do what he’d thought about for years. Watching his own kids graduate planted the idea in his mind. A member of Toquaht First Nation, he attended residential school until the late 1960s but left prematurely because of the mistreatment he received.
“Too much got in the way, like racism,” he said. “They kept putting us back, not passing us,” and so he left school behind.
Last September, well into their 60s, the couple started attending adult learning studies at NETP on Eighth Avenue. In retrospect, it was an experience that was as much about learning as it was about teaching — teaching others that they, too, can finish their schooling no matter how many years have passed.
“I loved doing Family Studies,” Fanny said, recalling the emotion of consigning the residential school experience to the past. “Family studies about how we’re back with our kids, about how it is today.”
“My nephew was shocked when he found that we were in the other class,” she added. “He started in April and caught up really fast.”
Fanny has plans to build on her certificate, perhaps training as an educational assistant. It would be another way of honouring what turned out to be their greatest motivator — setting an example for youth.
“The kids are the reason. So that they have somebody to look up to,” she said. “Our grandchildren are proud that we did it.”
There are plenty of reasons — the Macks have 15 grandchildren. One of their 11 grandsons, Jacob Richard, just graduated from high school in Powell River.
“We want to encourage the young people out there, the teenagers,” added Fanny, “and to show that it’s never too late to go back to school.”
Other elders have let them know they, too, appreciate the example.
“ ‘You guys are the reason I signed up because you are an inspiration,’ ” one told Fanny. “It was cool.”
Ellie Sampson, NETP case manager, said the Macks are among an increasing number of returning students taking advantage of the adult learning program introduced three years ago.
“We pretty much doubled our enrolment this year,” Sampson said.
The program is a partnership between NETP, which provides the learning space, and School District 70’s Eighth Avenue Learning Centre, which provides the instructor, Erik Deutsch. They’ve opened a door for students who would not be comfortable attending regular school settings, including people such as Eric Sr., who survived residential school.
“One of the things that keeps people coming back is that they’re comfortable in this environment,” Sampson said. “It’s working out really well. It’s great to see some of the elders stepping up.”
Some of the younger students are filling in gaps in their studies in order to attend college, Sampson said. One of those students, Anthony Bruneau, has gone onto complete his electrical foundation training at North Island College in Campbell River. He’s now looking for apprenticeship opportunities in the trade. Without his math and physics, obtained through adult learning, none of this would be possible.
As for Eric Jr., he’s pursuing the goal of becoming a resource management officer with his band.
Graduates of the adult learning program were also welcomed to the NTC graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 23, at Alberni Athletic Hall.