Learning, Interrupted

Kathleen Hollett has a dream. The first step: finishing high school

It’s hard to imagine patients being sad around Kathleen Hollett, the way it’s impossible to imagine children being sad in a room full of puppies. Hollett’s dream is to be a nurse, someone with a Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) certification.

Right now, though, Hollett is tired. She’s in math class, and not having fun. It’s Thursday morning, which means she only has one more shift before a two-day break.

This classroom could easily be mistaken for one where adolescents learn grammar and the nuances of language. In this classroom, though, everyone is over 30. Hollett too – she’s 41 years old.

She presses on, aware that every test and assignment brings her closer to achieving a key goal – a high school equivalency diploma.

It takes three years of study to receive the LPN designation, so for now, Hollett is content applying to the Continuing Care Assistant (CCA) program; these are people who work in nursing homes or provide home care for the elderly. And she knows what she needs to make that goal a reality and overcome serious obstacles.

She faces at least another year of four-day a week classes to earn her diploma, and then, tuition for the one-year CCA program is $3,220, excluding application fees, medical and dental insurance, bus passes and other miscellaneous costs. In order to do this, Hollett would need to quit her current job, leaving her without steady income.

Think of Hollett’s financial situation that year as a bathtub, slowly draining of water. Her apartment costs $1,175 per month, and she makes $11 per hour. On top of that, her husband is retired and currently undergoing an expensive round of treatment for bone marrow cancer. Three weeks of chemotherapy carries a price tag of $10,000. It’s mostly covered by his health insurance (she isn’t covered by his plan). NSCC provides scholarships and bursaries for those in need of assistance who apply, but Hollett is still worried about losing a regular paycheque.

Can she make it? Of every 20 people who take the CCA program, only three are over 40. The odds are not in her favour.


Hollett’s least favourite math problems are ones that involve probability. Today, she’s struggling to solve ones with fractions.

“I’m trying to remember,” Hollett says. “I hate fractions,” she complains as she rubs her temple with the palm of her hand.

“Thank you very much,” her teacher responds. She tells Hollett the answer will come to her if she remains calm.

Hollett eventually figures out the problem. “Don’t judge me,” she says under her breath. She is outgoing and enthusiastic, but would choose invisibility as her superpower. She is worried about how others see her, since her abilities have been doubted since high school.

Hollett maintains that she would have never thought of going back to school several years ago. Her former self would have found it too difficult, and quickly given up. Her confidence around people is a relatively new personality trait.

So what changed?

If she sits still for a long period of time, she fidgets with the ring on the third finger of her left hand. It’s not her actual wedding ring; that one is safe in a box at home. The one she wears was purchased from the Black Market Boutique on Blowers Street. It’s a gift from her second and current husband, Gary Hollett, who has an identical $10 ring purchased at the same time. Gary doesn’t wear his ring as often as she does – swollen hands are an unfortunate side effect of the chemotherapy.

Kathleen credits Gary with taking her out of her shell.

The two met working as crossing guards near Quinpool Road and Oxford Street in Halifax. Kathleen is over 30 years his junior, something not obvious until Gary starts making out-of-date pop culture references she doesn’t pick up on. Age gaps like theirs in a marriage used to be more commonplace than they are today: 30 years ago, married couples where the man was more than 10 years older made up two out of every 10 pairs. Six years ago, that number had dropped to one in every 10. Marriages with an age gap as extreme as theirs are even less common.

On the wall of this classroom, there is a sign: “In mathematics, you don’t understand things, you just get used to them.”


When Hollett takes her first steps onto the NSCC Waterfront Campus in Dartmouth, she pauses to take a picture of downtown Halifax, right across the harbour. It’s a sunny day, but cold. She is at NSCC to tour the place where she will hopefully spend a year of her life studying in the CCA program.

“So why do you want to do the CCA program?” her tour guide asks.

It’s a loaded question. Those with their CCA certification often end up working in palliative care. This does not faze Hollett the way it might others. She has been exposed to death since she was young; her grandmother died when she was 14, and less than two years later, her teenage cousin Ben died suddenly.

The biggest blow came when Hollett’s birth mother died on Nov. 4, 2004 after a lengthy illness. Hollett laments that she never got a chance to help or say goodbye to her.

“I just want to help people,” she eventually says.

Hollett has already demonstrated her willingness to help others. As part of his cancer treatment, her husband occasionally has to walk around on an IV line that supplies his body with bone building drugs. At some point in the process, Gary insisted that Kathleen help remove the line from his vein.

“You’ll have to learn how to do this at some point,” he said. “Be gentle.”

She obliged.

Gary didn’t feel a thing. He looked at her and said, “You’re good at this.”

There are 3,000 students enrolled at the Waterfront campus. Hollett takes her time on the tour, making sure to look in almost every classroom, whatever the department. CCA is still her number one choice, but she wants to know other options.

Seeing the campus radio station and printing press makes Hollett think. “It’s kind of opening my brain to the fact that I could do more than just my CCA,” she says.

Walking out of the building, Hollett takes one more photo of Halifax – so close that if you were to reach across the water, you could almost touch it. She puts her phone back in her pocket, turns around, and faces the campus once again. “Wow,” she says. Her gaze lingers; it’s almost as if she’s trying to burn an image of the building in her mind. Whether she will be back in a year remains to be seen.


Hollett already has a high school diploma from Queen Elizabeth High School in Halifax. During her time at QEH, she was placed in a special education program, which meant her curriculum was different than many of her classmates. She says many employers won’t recognize her degree as legitimate. She was reading and writing at a tenth grade level when she arrived at Cunard two years ago, and is now on her way towards achieving her high school equivalency. Many of her siblings still cannot read or write.

Although Nova Scotia has the highest literacy rate of any Atlantic province, it still trails the rest of Canada. This trend is not new – reading scores in Nova Scotia and the other Atlantic provinces have fallen behind every other Canadian province for well over a decade.

Even though Nova Scotia traditionally employs people in labour intensive industries, the importance of education in the province is still clear. In 1996, Halifax Water launched an initiative requiring all employees to obtain their grade 12 education or equivalent. Employees already working for the utility were given time and support to complete their schooling. It is one of the earliest examples in the province of labour intensive industries starting to place a strong importance on education.

One in every six people without a high school degree in Nova Scotia is unemployed. Three years ago, people with a high school degree were 20 per cent more likely to be hired than those who never graduated.


Hollett has always been inquisitive, which partially explains her desire to return to school. She only has two hours of downtime every day, Sunday through Thursday (the days she works and attends school), but this crazy schedule is merely a by-product of her new attitude on life.

Born near Windsor, N.S., Hollett remembers the area she grew up in, even though she only spent a short time there. She lived in the “boonies,” near only a gas station and a convenience store. At seven, she was adopted by a family from Halifax, but maintained a relationship with her birth mother and grandparents. Hollett has five biological siblings, two of whom were also adopted, a sister by the same family that took her. Her childhood house in Windsor no longer stands; it burned down over a decade ago.

On Good Friday 1990, 14-year-old Hollett had a strange dream: she sat up in bed and saw her birth grandmother smiling at her from the foot of her bed. She looked happy, Hollett thought.

She woke with a strange feeling that her grandmother was no longer alive.

Her father came into her room. He had just gotten off the phone with Hollett’s aunt, who broke the unfortunate news. “We’re going to Fredericton to see my family,” he said. “But we have to stop off somewhere first.”

“Who died?” Hollett asked him, point blank. He didn’t respond. The entire car ride was spent in silence.

The two of them never made it to Fredericton.

Instead, Hollett found herself in a funeral home in Windsor, staring down at a casket. The day she died, her grandmother had woken up and made her husband breakfast before going back to bed. She never woke up again.

Hollett remembers feeling angry that nobody told her what she suspected was true until she arrived at the funeral home.

This thirst for knowledge is something Hollett carries with her to the classroom each day.

That doesn’t mean she’s all work and no play – as class goes on one morning, she laughs and gossips with a classmate sitting beside her. As the two share photos of pets and relatives on their phones, Dale Taylor, one of her teachers, speaks up as he passes them on the way to his desk. “Hey! No having fun!” The two laugh, knowing he’s not serious.

Hollett gets back to work on a reading comprehension test. She proudly displays a graded writing assignment in her binder; it discusses why she prefers cats to dogs. On it, in distinct red ink, is Taylor’s handwriting: “Great work, Kathleen!”


One day near the end of January, Hollett and a dozen other students at the Cunard Learning Centre listen as Megan Collins, a recruitment officer from NSCC, speaks about education opportunities outside of Taylor’s classroom. Hollett is in the Adult Learning Program (ALP) at Cunard, which sends many of its students to continue their studies at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). The CCA program at NSCC only takes one year to complete, and unlike the more in-depth three-year Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) program, it doesn’t have a multi-year wait list for admission.

Finishing her high school education is something Hollett is looking forward to. What’s more – the ALP is completely subsidized by the government, costing students nothing out of their own pockets.

Collins is chatty, so it’s curious that many people in the classroom are either dozing off or not paying attention. Hollett is not one of those people. She’s focused, listening to every word Collins says. She asks at least five questions over the course of the half-hour long session. “I’m going to NSCC,” she says at one point, confident, full of energy and hope. Hollett knows exactly what she wants to do; her vision for the future is calculated and precise. While others in the class ask questions about zero cost programs such as carpentry (one person asks if there’s “big money in carpentry”), Hollett is steadfast when she tells Collins, “I want to be a CCA.”


At home, in her third floor apartment overlooking the Bedford Basin, Kathleen doesn’t like to think about school or work. “This is me in my element,” she says, as she puts the finishing touches on a Caesar salad. Gary tiptoes around her to get a lasagna from the oven. True, Gary may have helped Kathleen break out of her shell, but he also relies on her; he’s tired and has lost his appetite recently – another side effect of the chemotherapy.

Their black and white tuxedo cat, Smokey, lays sprawled out on the carpet in the living room – he’s hungry, and before Gary and Kathleen sit down to eat lunch, they make sure he gets his meal.

Their apartment is adequately sized – it’s a one-bedroom, and the kitchen is big enough for both of them to comfortably navigate around each other. It’s tidy in most places, but messy in others; there’s a large pile of bank statements on the kitchen counter. On the table in the living room are pictures of Gary and Kathleen’s 2013 wedding that took place in a friend’s backyard. A full month into the New Year, there’s still a Christmas-themed centrepiece on their dinner table.

“Where did I leave the oven mitts?” Gary wonders aloud. In response, Kathleen stares at him. He finds the oven mitts on the counter in front of him.

The apartment building is only three years old. How can a couple living off Hollett’s $11 an hour and Gary’s pensions afford a place like theirs?

Kathleen never asks for money from her adoptive father, who works in the television industry. Regardless, she says “he’s very generous around the holidays.”


“This isn’t my dream job. This is my job until I become a nurse,” Hollett says, pushing her cleaning cart along the hallways of Sunnyside Mall in Bedford. It’s a Thursday evening, and there’s a top-40 channel pumping music through the speaker system – not her preferred genre. She is, and always has been, a country music fan. The playlist she listens to at work is full of music by artists like Lady Antebellum, but also includes some guilty pleasures, such as a few Meghan Trainor songs. She talks about anything and everything while doing her rounds as a cleaner: the weather, the Montreal Canadiens (her favourite team, just like her uncle), or the fact that she finds Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “cute.”

“My husband says, ‘I love you, but you talk way too much,’” Hollett jokes.

Near the food court there is a Pete’s supermarket, a gourmet butcher shop, and a wine merchant – all within 20 paces of each other. Hollett often buys dinner at Pete’s (a notoriously expensive gourmet grocery store) a habit she complains will soon bankrupt her. Sometimes, when she has a down moment, she’ll wander over to the Newfoundland Chocolate Company near the food court and marvel at what they have for sale.

Hollett notices an older couple sitting at a table in the food court. They’re regulars, she explains, as she strides over to them and props herself against a chair.

“You look 25!,” she says to the woman, part-way through their conversation. She laughs, and the couple laughs with her. She’s an open book; she tells them about her husband and his chemo treatments and shows them photos of Smokey on her phone. “I have to get back to work, or I’ll get fired!” she says after a few minutes, perhaps only half-joking. She is on schedule, and cannot fall behind. It’s 7:30 p.m., which means it’s time for her to clean the trays in the food court.

At 10 p.m., Hollett gets ready to leave the mall. She smiles – after six hours at the learning centre and another six at work, it’s the end of the day. She has had no down time except for an hour to eat lunch with Gary and the hour between the end of school and the beginning of work. It’s a good thing tomorrow is one of her off days. She will try to sleep in, even though Smokey has an annoying habit of waking her at 6:30 a.m.

At this time of night, Hollett becomes Queen of the Mall by default; the halls are empty, and she can see everything from her vantage point on the second floor catwalk. She pulls her pink raincoat over top of her work issued navy blue polo shirt as she pushes her cleaning cart towards the storage closet.

“It’s all I can do, just keep pushing on.”

 

4 comments

  1. John Sandham you are made to be a writer. How insightful and compassionate to write about this family and their challenges, dreams and faith. I look forward to the many, many more stories that you have to tell and the important issues you have to bring to our attention. You are my star!!!!!!

  2. A wonderful and useful account of a ‘real’ person in our city who deserves a lot of respect and admiration.

  3. I’ve known Kathleen for years and this story is so so her, She is a bundle of energy. A very well told story you are a fantastic writer , John Sandham

  4. This is an excellently written article .

    The subject matter is engaging

    Thank you for posting it.

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