At 5 p.m., the bus pulls up to the Kent ISD Adult Education Center at Beckwith School in Northeast Grand Rapids and Susan Domeier steps out. Aided by a cane and clad in a black beret and bright pink scarf, the 84-year-old Filipino woman is ready for her class in English as a Second Language.
Domeier greets teachers and friends and they offer cheerful hellos. The center is a place where there’s camaraderie among students who are learning to speak, read, write and listen in English together, and Domeier likes to spend three hours, two evenings a week there. Her native language is Tagalog, and though she has spoken English for decades, she wants to improve her vocabulary and conversational skills. She carries a notebook filled with words to learn.
She decided to enroll in the ESL program last year. “I was bored and I said, ‘I don’t like to watch TV all the time,’ and I said I would like to learn better English because some people I talk to and I do not understand what they’re saying.”
Now she looks forward to class. “I love it. I would like to help people. So many people here don’t know how to speak English at all. I feel sorry for them. I like to help them.”
In class, Domeier takes her seat, surrounded by classmates from many countries. They get a kick out of Domeier’s personality and never-ending perseverance.
“I like her funny stories. She wants to know everything,” said student Ayuba Bedaso.
“She is so happy every day,” added Abun Zegata.
“She brings a perspective from somebody who’s a lot older,” said instructor Karen McBurney. “In some ways she’s a real role model of tenacity for the other students. She asks interesting questions” and is “kind, compassionate and generous.”
The Kent ISD Adult Education Program enrolls nearly 1,000 students in Adult Basic Education, High School Equivalency (GED) and ESL programs at locations in Grand Rapids, Wyoming and the Godfrey-Lee Public Schools district.
A Long-Held Appreciation for School
Like most students in the Adult English as a Second Language program, Domeier has a remarkable story.
She lived in the Philippines during World War II. Her father was an architect who joined the military as a supply sergeant who supplied guns to soldiers. He was wanted by the Japanese, Domeier said. She was 7 when the war started and remembers living in hiding on a boat and in the mountains with her father, sister and mother.
“I like to go to school because I missed four years of school because we always had to hide,” she said. In the mountains, she and her family lived off wild fruits and bananas, too fearful to cook because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.
After the war ended, Domeier was able to attend a Catholic school until she was 15 or 16. She became a cook at a restaurant where she met her husband, a German. He immigrated to the U.S. first, and she joined him 1962. She now has five children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Over the years, she worked at a car parts factory and at Meijer. Domeier’s husband died in 2011.
Indeed, one of the oldest students in Grand Rapids, Domeier is also perhaps the most surprising. She often reveals stunners about herself, like that she’s a drummer who played in bars for 25 years with her late husband.
“I am a jealous person. I don’t want him to play in a bar without me,” she said, explaining why she decided to pick up drumsticks and learn to play. “I miss him so much.” She plays “everything,” she said, especially country music. She also plays guitar and sings in the choir for Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Mary’s Catholic churches.
School secretary Michelle Downer sees how Domeier impacts others as a true example that “You are never to old to learn. She has that stamina. She is an inspiration to other students as well as staff.”
Domeier, who shows no signs of stopping anytime soon, said she just enjoys her time hitting the books.
“This is better than sitting in the house or watching TV,” she said.