DETROIT >> There were numerous reasons why Melinda Sporea did not earn a high school diploma.
There was no time to return to school. She was married, had a family of five to raise and ran her own hair salon. She was not in step with all the younger students who had some high school credits under their belts. She had zero and needed all 22 to graduate.
It was just too hard. Sporea had tried three adult education programs over the years but found the coursework too challenging. She would become embarrassed and give up.
Yet the desire to finish high school never left Sporea as she watched children and grandchildren graduate over the years.
In fact, it nagged at her. Then in 2016 she enrolled again, this time in an adult education program at Utica Community Schools, to start on the four-year path to a high school diploma.
This time she completed the journey, and on June 6, at age 70, she became a high school graduate, joining other members of the Macomb County district’s class of 2021.
To get it done, Sporea attended afternoon classes four days a week, tackling a curriculum of math and English, biology and social studies, financial literacy and international history.
There were tears over math problems, late nights studying for tests and essays to write on subjects she was learning about for the first time, from author Laura Ingalls Wilder to planetary systems.
Even the pandemic, which forced the closure of Sporea’s school in March of her third year and her entire “senior” year, could not stop the grandmother from getting her diploma.
Her story is one of rigor, grit and resilience, fueled by her belief that education is vitally important.
“You need your education. Reach your goal. Don’t stop,” she recalled telling her own children.
Sporea’s perseverance has inspired her teachers, her husband, her children and everyone else who has stood witness to her commitment.
“I am so proud of her. I would come over and she always updated me on what she was learning, and that was really cool for her to share that with me,” said daughter Krystal Andrzejewski. “She loves learning, and it’s inspiring because it is very rare for someone at this age to take a four-year course and finish it.”
Sporea recalled how the first day of class drove her to tears.
“They had chalkboards, and you had to do your math problem on them. You had to show her to see if it was correct,” she said. “I never did this kind of math in my life. I … burst out crying. I said, ‘I don’t belong here. What am I doing here?’”
Then she started reflecting: “This has been my goal forever. I have grandkids. I gotta go for it. I gotta do it no matter what.”
Sporea’s childhood was not an easy one. Her father died when she was 2, leaving her mother to raise three children alone. She not only attended school; she also worked at a grocery store, and that turned into a full-time job. When she was in the eighth grade, Sporea’s mother told her she could stop attending school.
Later in life she met Ted Sporea, her “Prince Charming,” and got married and had five children. She attended the Katrina College of Beauty while raising three kids and received a cosmetology certificate in 1987.
In subsequent years she had two more children and managed various hair salons. Eventually, she started her own business, Melinda’s Unisex Hair Magic.
When she returned to school in 2016, Sporea made note cards to study and hit the books every night, declining social invitations. During those four years there were tough days, but Sporea never thought about giving up.
“I wanted to learn things I never knew in my life. That kind of motivated me,” she said.
Ted, 72, a retired machine repair tech, said his wife was independent.
“School-wise, I could not help much,” he said. “I forgot almost everything. She basically did it on her own.”
Once her studies got underway at Utica, Sporea gained confidence and even helped other students with their schoolwork.
“I would look at the students and say, ‘I will help you.’ They encouraged me, they helped me. I felt like all the students were my kids. I loved them to pieces,” she said.
She said she enjoyed learning remotely during the pandemic, despite not having a teacher in the same room.
“I just wanted to finish,” she said. In fact, in four years Sporea missed only two days of school.
Elizabetha Sancen, Sporea’s oldest daughter, worked with adult students learning English in the same building her mom attended classes. Sancen was the driving force behind her mom enrolling in school again.
“I told her I would pay for her registration fee,” she said. “That motivated her. That did the trick.”
When classes were tough, Sancen would invite her mother to come see her in school, and they would talk it over.
Now she is grateful to have witnessed her mother’s progress.
“I am so proud of her. I feel like my own kid is graduating,” she said. “It gets me choked up to see her in her cap and gown.”
C.J. Wajeeh, director of UCS’ Community Education, said about 10% of students who attend the program end up dropping out.
She said Sporea initially struggled. “She had a mental block. … She said, ‘I am so old. They are going to laugh at me,’” Wajeeh said. “It was (about) building her up: ‘You can do this. We will support you to get you through.’”
In return, Sporea brought meals for the adult education staff, including her specialty: tamales, made from scratch.
“She was taking care of us as we were taking of her,” Wajeeh said.
As Sporea’s confidence grew, so did her leadership skills, and it won her membership in the National Honor Society for Adult Education.
“She is a very likable, friendly person. Other students came in; they were apprehensive. They asked, ‘Should I be here?’ … She would encourage them,” Wajeeh said.
To watch Sporea reach her goal was emotional for Wajeeh and the staff.
“She never felt complete without the high school diploma. She felt so defeated,” she said. “To watch her really bloom, to help someone achieve the one last thing they want to do is amazing. That degree — it shows you education is so important.”