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At 94, a high school senior like no other

Genevieve Johnson, 94, will don cap and gown at Westford Academy, fulfilling a lifelong dream of finishing school

WESTFORD — The new girl at Westford Academy digs Guy Lombardo instead of Lady Gaga. Her dance of choice is the jitterbug. And she can dish out relationship advice with a bit more perspective than any of her classmates.

Then again, Genevieve Johnson is not your average Westford Academy senior. For her, graduation on June 6 will be the culmination of a dream deferred 78 years ago, when Johnson dropped out of school to help her family get by during the Great Depression.

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She is 94 years old and counting down the days until she dons the cap and gown, crosses the stage at Westford Academy Trustees Field, and receives her high school diploma.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted,” Johnson said as she sat with some fellow 12th-graders before a US history class in which she is as much a resource as a student. “I often thought about it. I thought about maybe taking up school and going at night. But I never did.”

Weeks after she started taking English, history, and acting classes, Johnson still fascinates other students with her stories about high school in the mid-1930s. She sometimes got to school in a horse and buggy, when the bus would get stuck on the muddy paths that passed for roads. Westford Academy in her day was a one-room schoolhouse with one dictionary, a far cry from the gleaming, sprawling, computer-friendly school of today. The class of 1936 was 25 or 30 students; more than 400 seniors are set to graduate this year.

Johnson admits she was not the best student: In high school, she recalled, she “was more interested in going to dances and boyfriends.”

As a result, Johnson recalled, she had to repeat two classes and finished her senior year in 1936 two electives short of graduating. When the school year ended, she took a job at Abbot Worsted Mill.

‘In all of the classes we’ve been to, we talk about a time period and she remembers it. . . . Just listening to her is emotional, but really inspiring.’

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She only made a few dollars a week, but “it was the Depression years,” Johnson said. “Otherwise I would have been in school.”

Instead, she never went back. She eventually got married, raised three children, got divorced, married again, and lived 52 years with her second husband until he died in 2004. She still lives in the Westford house where she grew up and keeps in touch with her surviving child, her daughter, who lives in Louisiana but plans to attend her graduation.

Genevieve Johnson, 94, was escorted to class by a “dream team” of classmates at Westford Academy. She has been taking English, history, and acting classes after dropping out in the 1930s.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Genevieve Johnson, 94, was escorted to class by a “dream team” of classmates at Westford Academy. She has been taking English, history, and acting classes after dropping out in the 1930s.

The catalyst that put Johnson back in school was a meeting in March with Annette Cerullo, outreach coordinator with the Council on Aging, who asked her the one thing in her life she would have done differently.

“She immediately said, ‘I wish I finished high school,’ ” Cerullo recalled. An e-mail to Betsy Murphy, dean of students at Westford Academy, got the ball rolling.

Murphy said that school officials worked out a course load — history, English, and acting classes, with no homework or tests, for the last 6 weeks until graduation — that would symbolically show that she had finished high school.

At first, it appeared that Johnson would still not be eligible to receive a diploma, because she has not taken the MCAS tests. But school officials, backed by a groundswell of public support, successfully lobbied the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to waive the requirement.

Johnson still drives; she recently renewed her license for another five years. But on the two or three days a week she attends classes, she gets a ride to school from her “dream team,” three Westford Academy seniors who, as part of an internship, help Johnson make her way from class to class.

On Monday, the girls, Caroline Eliopoulos and Christina Caviston walked hand in hand with Johnson, with Grace Gosselin at their side, turning heads as they made their way to history class.

“At first [the other students] probably thought we were with our grandmother,” Caviston said. But now, “everyone wants to meet her because they think she’s, like, so cool.”

The coolest thing about her?

“Her leaving school to go to work to help her family,” Caviston opined. “No kid would do that today.” Johnson has doled out lessons on finding the right guy and described for other students what it was like living through the Vietnam War and Watergate.

“In all of the classes we’ve been to, we talk about a time period and she remembers it,” Eliopoulos said. “It’s cool to see her perspective. A couple of kids started crying in class. Just listening to her is emotional, but really inspiring.”

Johnson was surprised that students are encouraged to take part in class discussions. She recalled her teachers lecturing and writing on the blackboard. Another difference is the way history class includes music from the era.

Music, incidentally, is one area where the senior high schooler and other high school seniors do not see eye to eye. “We had such good music,” Johnson said, ticking off names — Lombardo, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey — that mean as little to Caviston as Hunter Hayes and Kid Ink mean to Johnson. The music is only one reason why Johnson rebuffed her new classmates’ invitation to attend the senior prom.

“I don’t like the way people dance,” she said. But that’s it as far as the negatives go. “I’ve never seen so many wonderful people in all my life or had so much attention,” Johnson said.

Grateful to be back in school, Johnson never tires of telling students not to repeat her decision to drop out.

“The thing that I stress is to tell the students to stay in school,” she said. “It is necessary today to get an education.”

Jacqueline Tempera can be reached at Jacqueline.Tempera
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @jacktemp. David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.
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