Vivian Ketchum is counting down the days until June 30th.
The 58-year-old will receive her high school diploma at a graduation ceremony at the University of Winnipeg next month. It’s a moment decades in the making.
“I’m looking forward to crossing this stage,” she said.
Ketchum enrolled at the Winnipeg Adult Education Center last fall. One assessment got her into 11th grade and less than a year later she will graduate.
While she’s cheerful, her graduation will also be bittersweet. Ketchum was inspired to return to school by her son, Tyler. He died in 2011 at the age of 24 after a devastating diagnosis of brain cancer.
In the days leading up to Tyler’s death, he had a clear message for his mother.
“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to grieve too long. I’ll be fine Mom, you have to keep going.’ And that’s what I did when I applied,” she said.
Going back into the classroom was intimidating at first as Ketchum’s history with school was uncomfortable.
Ketchum, who is an Ojibway heir, grew up in Kenora, Ontario. She experienced racism and found school a challenge. She dropped out of the ninth grade to support her family.
She had Tyler when she was 21 and the family moved to Winnipeg in the late ’90s to be close to family.
Stable, meaningful employment is difficult to find without a high school diploma, she recalled. Ketchum, who was a single mother, found grueling warehouse jobs in difficult conditions and sales work that at the end of the day left her with little money to take home.
Any job is worth it to support her son, she said.
“I remember doing all these little jobs to make sure he had tutors, that he had clothes, school photos — everything I did to make sure he graduated,” she said. “I was like, ‘Hey, if I can do this for him, I can do this for myself.'”
As it turned out, Ketchum’s return to school was a rewarding and surprising experience. As a child she hated math. This time she outdid herself.
“I was in my 90s,” she said.
“I think it was because of how I was taught math and everything before. The classes (in adult education) are smaller. There is more one-on-one. The teachers are patient with you.”
Not even a brutal battle with COVID-19 in January could shake her dedication to her schoolwork.
“I was in the ER working on my math homework,” she said.
“I thought that was the end of my school year, but then I was able to keep up with distance learning.”
Ketchum said she’s already had a few job offers and aspires to work as a librarian in the future.
Additionally, her diploma gives her vital confidence to shine in the next chapter of her life and continue to make her son proud.
“All my life I’ve heard, directly or indirectly, that I’m a stupid Indian. Now I can hold my head up.”