Uceba Babson used to trudge through flooded plains for more than a mile to reach her one-room schoolhouse, her lunch pail full of syrup-covered biscuits.
That was before buses and roads came to rural Pahokee, and the swampy land made getting to school an adventure. But in 1931, Babson gave up her daily commute through Florida swamps to marry a vegetable farmer.
She now has 81 grandchildren and great-grandchildren to hear her schoolgirl tales, but the end of the story always troubled her. So after outliving three husbands and letting seven decades pass since her last high school class, Babson decided it was time to go back to school.
Roses and a letter from the governor
After two years of hard work, never missing a day of class, she took part in a graduation ceremony Tuesday night, a few months after her 90th birthday. She received a rousing standing ovation, a bouquet of red roses and a congratulatory letter from Gov. Jeb Bush.
Babson — born before World War I broke out, before Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean, before women won the right to vote — now has new stories of getting to school.
“I studied and studied, and then I learned I actually passed,” Babson said. “A lot of it was memorizing. You had to remember the rules and at 90, it’s hard.”
She tells of days that begin at 4 a.m. with a hot shower and water bottles to get her knees working. She drove herself in a 1997 Mercury on roads that didn’t exist in her childhood.
Inspired by a book about a man who was in his 90s when he started high school, Babson dove into her math, English, science and social studies courses.
‘I'm going to do it’
“I thought, ’If he can do it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t,”’ Babson said. “It gave me a purpose and I said, ’If it takes me five years, I’m going to do it.”’
She spent many hours a day studying, learning in social studies about the wars that she had lived through and in science about the photosynthesis that helped her family’s cornstalks grow.
“I couldn’t even pick up a magazine because I felt guilty because I thought I should pick up my books for school,” Babson said.
On her first day at the Adult Education Center, her classroom was nearly unrecognizable from the one-room schoolhouse in Pahokee she had left behind. The desks had computers and the seats were filled with people from Jamaica, Haiti and Latin America.
“We all just blended together. It was wonderful,” Babson said.
The center helps students as young as 16 study for their high school equivalency diploma and helps others take exams and brush up on their English or writing skills.
For Babson, whose quick gait and proud posture make her appear decades younger than she is, putting on her blue cap and gown and picking up her diploma is the culmination of a dream.
“This is something I promised myself a long time ago,” Babson said. “It’s been a challenge, but a wonderful challenge.”