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Nearly 50 years after dropping out of school in Mexico City to help support her family, Isabell Booth will earn a Spanish degree on Sunday.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Isabel Booth, 58, grew up in Mexico City and dropped out of school to work to help her family. When she was 23, her husband left her with two young children. She came to Roanoke and worked for a time for her ex-husband’s family at the El Rodeo restaurant.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Isabel Booth vacuums the entryway of a dorm. She said her fellow students seem to be keeping their lodgings a little cleaner since she became recognized as part of the student body.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Isabel Booth, 58, originally from Mexico City, tidies up a dorm Wednesday at Hollins University as part of the school’s cleaning crew. Booth graduates this weekend with a degree from Hollins, where she’s taken classes since starting work at the college.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
The other students are sometimes a bit confused at first.
That lady, is that really the dormitory cleaning lady next to them in Spanish class?
Or, is that lady with the vacuum in my music class?
For 12 years, Isabel Booth has straddled the divide between custodian and classmate, packing in classes between shifts mopping and taking out the trash left by her fellow students. This weekend, Hollins University students will find Booth among them again — in the line to receive a diploma for a degree in Spanish at Sunday’s commencement.
Nearly 50 years after dropping out of school in Mexico City to work to help support her family, Booth will earn what amounts to something like an accidental degree. She only wanted to take classes to indulge a deep desire for the learning she was deprived of as a 9-year-old.
“For me, I feel like I discover my world,” said Booth, 58.
“Her motivation was just, to me, pure, about wanting to learn,” said Celia McCormick, director of the Horizon Program for adult students at Hollins. “She’s been an inspiration, even though she never set out to do that.”
Booth was honored with the Evelyn Bradshaw Award for Excellence, which recognizes “an outstanding Horizon student who inspires others through her perseverance, positive attitude, pursuit of knowledge, and love of Hollins University.”
“It just reinforces that idea that… you never know who that person is that’s sweeping the floor that you’re walking on,” said Judith Cline, a Hollins music professor.
But Booth carries herself with a serenity and a dignity that belie her long acquaintance with hard living and menial work.
She was the middle child of 11 growing up in Mexico City. Her father drank heavily and often, and was absent often, she said.
But when he was around, he espoused a traditional view of women for his daughters. You grow up to marry, have children and stay at home. So the family saw it as no sacrifice for Booth to leave school at 9 — the equivalent of fourth grade in the U.S. — to go to work.
She did domestic work, mostly, washing dishes, ironing and sewing for people, and earned enough money to buy the first shoes she ever owned that weren’t hand-me-downs, a pair of black, patent leather Mary Janes.
But at 20 she married, and by 23 had a son, Edgar, 2, and an infant girl, Miriam, who was 40 days old when her husband abandoned them.
Though all of her life to that point had prepared Booth to stay at home, she had no choice but to go to work. She bought a sewing machine and got a job as a seamstress for a local company that allowed her to work at home.
When she could, she took public school classes meant for kids 12 and 13 years old.
“Always I wanted to take more classes,” she said.
Along the way, her ex-husband’s family continued to look out for her. In 1989, they brought Booth to Roanoke to work in a restaurant they owned, El Rodeo.
Though she’s a legal resident of the U.S. now, she arrived here undocumented, with only her children and the clothes she was wearing.
‘I don’t think about the degree’
At first, she only worked. In the restaurant, “I work whatever they give me,” Booth said. She might be waiting tables or helping in the kitchen.
Soon Booth took jobs working as a seamstress, first at Maid-Bess, and later at Rowe Furniture.
At Rowe, she learned she could take classes to earn her GED. She wasn’t even sure what a GED was, or what it would do for her, but any chance to take a class she couldn’t pass up.
Along the way, she and a customer at El Rodeo, a Roanoke County engineer named Todd Booth, fell for each other and married. They moved to Montvale, and about that time, Rowe moved its operations to Elliston.
The commute was too long, so Booth answered a newspaper ad for a custodian job at Hollins.
“Really, I think I don’t stay too long,” she said. That was in 2001.
It wasn’t long after she arrived that a student told her that if she had a GED, she could take classes at Hollins as “special student.”
Again, she couldn’t resist.
“I take classes, but, really, I don’t think about the degree,” Booth said.
She had taken classes at Virginia Western Community College, but Hollins seemed more intimidating, she confessed. So the first class she took was a Spanish class, because she figured it might be easier for her.
Her professors never perceived any nervousness, and describe her as very intelligent. Spanish Professor Alison Ridley taught the first classes Booth took.
“You know that she’s there to absorb as much as she can,” Ridley said. “She’s not nervous. She’s there to be a sponge.”
“She can be a very quiet sort of person,” said Music Professor Bill Krause, “but that’s not the same as being shy.”
Booth spoke up often in the multiple classes she took with him, especially in classes on Latin music. She was always willing to contribute what she knew from growing up in Mexico to the discussion.
“She’s really contributing to the education of the rest of the students,” Krause said.
Booth said students who recognize her from work are sometimes surprised to see her in the next desk, but none has ever looked askance at her.
Her professors believe she doesn’t even perceive any sort of class or prestige divide.
“She’s never come in with the attitude that, ‘I’m a cleaning lady here,’” said Ridley.
“She is such a quiet, humble person and yet such a strong presence,” McCormick said.
Students love to practice speaking Spanish with her because she’s a native speaker, and she’s forever offering to help any of them, Ridley said. Yet she never holds herself as superior because Spanish is her first language.
Booth said students respond to her presence in only one way that she’s noticed. Once they get to know her, she said, the areas she cleans in their dorms started to stay a little cleaner.
Booth continued on her path of taking one or two classes a semester for nearly a decade, just dabbling in what she wanted to learn more about: Spanish, music, art, photography.
A few years ago, Ridley and some others decided to see if they could get Booth on a more serious academic path.
If she was selective about what she took, they told her, she could earn a college degree.
A few years earlier, Booth’s son had graduated from Roanoke College. “You’re next,” he told her. And he gave her his diploma.
Yet Booth was resistant to the idea of graduating, Ridley said.
“Does this mean I can’t take classes anymore?” she asked Ridley.
“I think that she would have been sort of happy going along taking courses,” Ridley said.
Cline, the music teacher, suspects Booth needed just one more confidence boost.
“I think part of it was gaining that nerve of, ‘I can really do this. I’m not just a cleaning lady taking classes, I’m a Hollins student pursuing a degree,’” she said.
Whatever it was, Booth relented.
She finished her last required class in the fall — and then took one more this semester because she could.
Booth lost a special professor last year, Daniel Murphy, who died in December, along with a cherished friend, Maria Arrellano, her ex-husband’s sister.
She has plenty to do without school. Her daughter is divorced and living with Booth, along with her children. She’s the catechist and coordinator for both the choir and the Bible school at St. Gerard’s Catholic Church, where she’s also starting a children’s choir.
She likes to be busy.
“Maybe because my life is not easy … whatever I have, for me, it’s good,” she said.
But maybe it’s a good idea to take a break, she thinks.
“I want to teach Spanish,” she said. But then she adds, “maybe one day before I retire.”
In the meantime, the woman her professors call the “eternal student” has other designs.
She’s applied to Hollins to pursue a master’s degree.
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