On June 17, 2017, surrounded by friends, family and faculty, two-hundred and thirty graduates walked to receive their diplomas at the Peninsula College Commencement ceremony. For some, the pathway to graduation is relatively smooth. For others, like Forks resident Irma Allen, the road is rife with potholes and steep, winding switchbacks. This is a story of Irma’s incredible perseverance, told in the words of an English professor who came to know her well.
Irma grew up in Mexico surrounded by a loving family. Memories of her grandmother, who taught her cultural traditions, cooking skills and the importance of patience, are particularly vivid. When Irma turned eight, however, this life came to an abrupt end and she would be forced to draw strength from that well of childhood reminiscences for many years to come.
Irma was still a little girl when her mother died of cancer, leaving seven children without a mom. Irma’s father soon re-married a much younger woman who was not pleased with the idea of raising seven kids, and so all them were farmed out to relatives or foster care. Irma spent the next eight years in a foster home where life was cruel and hard.
“Every morning I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to clean the house and do large loads of laundry. I could not go to school because of my workload. When I was 16, I was severely beaten, so I ran away and hid for about six months.”
Although Irma had escaped the horrors of her foster home, living on the street proved nearly as traumatic. One day while hiding out at a local market, her older brother found her and took her to live with him. When her brother’s boss asked Irma to babysit his children in San Diego, she jumped at the chance. Working in America gave Irma an opportunity for a new life, free of abuse. While in San Diego, she met the love of her life, Barney Allen, who was stationed there in the Navy.
“I could barely speak English, but after a three-day courtship, Barney asked me to marry him and I said yes!”
It looked as though life had finally begun to take on the semblance of normalcy for Irma; she was safe and happy for the first time in many years. Four months into their marriage, Barney brought Irma to Forks to meet his parents and introduce her to his hometown. During their visit, Barney announced that he would be leaving his bride in Forks with his parents while he deployed to Hawaii for six months. He reasoned that since he would be living on a navy ship, it would not be good for his wife to live alone in San Diego. Irma was devastated!
The six-month absence was an eternity. Her language skills were limited, she had no friends, and her mother-in-law had a full time job. Separated from her husband and unable to speak English, Irma felt completely isolated and depressed. Her in-laws did everything they could to make her feel comfortable, but without language to communicate, she was lonelier than she’d even been.
“My father-in-law encouraged me to watch Perry Mason twice a day to learn English. Irma thinks she probably did learn more during that period. With no one to converse with in Spanish, there was just Perry Mason episodes.
In May 1988, Barney returned from deployment to a much-anticipated reunion. But Irma’s spirits were again deflated when she learned that the couple would not be returning to San Diego as Barney had promised; he had decided they would stay in Forks to be close to family.
“I cried for the next few years. I continued to feel isolated and alone. I was unable to have children of my own and I felt lonely. Life was still hard and I learned very quickly that without a high school diploma or a GED, my options for work were limited.”
Gradually, Irma accepted her circumstances and as her attitude changed, so did her heart as well as doors. Her struggle with the English language continued though. Irma began ESL and GED classes, but even after years of hard work, she still had not earned her GED. One day at a very low point for Irma, an academic advisor at Peninsula College found her sitting alone in the student lounge, on the verge of tears. Straightaway, the two made a new plan. The next day, Irma began working daily with English instructor, Glynda Schaad. Irma recalled:
“We met the next day and Glynda explained that we would work together. We started by going to the library to pick out an easy book from the children’s section, one that I could read. I went home and started reading. I would return each day and explain what I had read. Often I would read aloud to Glynda. I began reading the youth version of a book called The Hiding Place and when I finished, I realized that it was the first book I had ever read from beginning to end! We made frequent trips to the library to find good books. I seemed to be making progress.”
Irma & Glynda continued to work together 4 days a week. Over a year, Irma progressed from reading at the elementary level to a 500 page book chosen for a college level literature class entitled, Hiding in Plain Sight. In the words of Professor Schaad,
“When asked to help Irma with reading and writing those many years ago, I have to say, I was not at all confident in my ability to address Irma’s unique learning disabilities. I’m still surprised by the outcome. The only thing I could think to do was begin at the lowest level of reading and build from there. Irma loved biographies of people who had overcome great obstacles so we focused on that genre. After reading several chapters of Hiding in Plain Sight, the story of a Polish Jewish woman living in Germany prior to and during the Second World War, Irma would report to me about what she had read. I was astounded at the detail Irma recalled; in some instances I had to double check the facts because my recall didn’t compare with hers! It was then that I recognized Irma’s potential. Her disability had utterly masked her true aptitude.”
Irma suffered another disappointment when she was dismissed from her job working with children. Although her advisor had written a letter to document the long list of college-level credits she had earned in Early Childhood Education, Irma hadn’t met the timeline allowed for attaining a GED. Adding to her despondency, the set of standardized tests for the GED had changed twice since Irma first began her studies, voiding all previous passing scores, so now she was faced with having to start all over yet again. Irma was ready to quit! Barney, ever supportive of Irma’s efforts, suggested that she enroll in an online high school diploma program, but it was very expensive. Instead, Irma learned that she could earn an Adult High School Diploma through completion of the AAS degree she had begun at Peninsula College. Irma explained what happened next:
“I took my first class in English 90 and then went on to English 101. I signed up for biology, psychology and other science classes. Some days after coming home from work as an assistant cook for Head Start and from college classes, I just wanted to cry from all the stress, but I knew I could not give up. Midway through my studies, I accepted a job as an assistant teacher at the Forks ECEAP, a position I still hold.”
The most challenging subject matter for Irma was Math, as it is for so many students. But she found the faculty in Forks willing to go above and beyond to help her understanding, and where she had been unsuccessful with the GED, she got through the college-level math requirement for her Applied Science degree. She also earned prior learning credits by developing a portfolio, documenting knowledge and skills gained from her work experience that were assessed to be equivalent to specific course outcomes. This was the final step in Irma’s incredible journey to an Associate’s degree, and a High School diploma.
As she walked across the stage at Commencement, Professor Schaad and many of Irma’s supporters could not help but reflect on her dedication, her indefatigable spirit and love of learning as well as her humble and generous heart. Though never able to have children, she has loved and taught countless children for decades, as a teacher and Foster Mom. She and Barney have provided a loving home to dozens of children, some for the long term. Irma was drawn to books about people who overcame obstacles and who made a difference in the world. Those who know her think she deserves a place in one of these books.