The most surprising realization about Lee Ruth Cook is that she is 81 years old. Her eyes are alive with inquisitiveness of all that is around her. The Laurens woman speaks rapidly, determined to get her many thoughts out as they crackle through the synapses of her mind.

Another striking realization is that she doesn’t have a diploma. At the Laurens County Higher Education Center, she is working her way toward her GED. It stands for General Education Development test. It is often mistakenly identified as “general education” or “graduation equivalency” diploma. They are related. It is designed as an equivalence of high school graduation, and it requires successfully passing four tests: reasoning through language arts (RLA), social studies, science and mathematical reasoning.

"Miss Lee Ruth" is a woman of great faith, as reflected by her work as a lay evangelist for 35 years, through several churches, up to now, when she conducts an online sermon each week in which her rapid-fire speech undoubtedly comes in handy. Her faith enables her to ignore the ticking of any clock.

“I pray to my God,” she says. “I ask God to help me in everything I do. And I want to thank the teachers. They have been so good to me. If I don’t get here on time, they go to worrying about me.”

She believes God will give her time to reach her goals. What seems challenging from the exterior is reality in her soul.

Many of her teachers naturally cheer her on. Carole Senn, retired from District 55 nine years ago, and relates to her struggles. Teachers and other students alike seem to gravitate toward her as the matriarch of an informal family.

“I was in church one Sunday morning,” Cook says. “There were two young men from Lander [University] in Greenwood. … They were teaching, and it dawned on me. ‘I need to go to a college and learn more about these different words that I didn’t learn when I was going to school, and learn the meaning. … It was an impact on me.

“On Monday, I came by here (the higher education center), and they told me I had to pay $40 to get into it and get you GED, and I said ‘I don’t have any money.’ But they worked it out and found a way I could get it paid for.”

Cook walked out of school in 1954 and walked back in one in 1996, but it didn’t last long. The school closed down.

“From there to now, I haven’t been in a school,” she said, “but I thank God for where I am today.”

She passed social studies, and she’s closing in on language arts, but Cook doesn’t just want the latter-day high school diploma. She wants to go to college or tech school.

“I want to take up computer technology. Or accounting,” she says. “Or the master’s degree that would qualify me to be a minister (proper).

“I like figures. I like mathematics. Maybe I could work in a bank.”

She’s had all the limitations that life brings. She worked in mills while raising children. Tragedies cost her two husbands and a grandson.

“God gave me the freedom to go on,” she says. “I took care of my children. My mother died when I was 12 years old. I had to take care of the boys, and I had four brothers. One shot another one. I had a child when I was in the 10th grade, and they wouldn’t let me go back (to school) then. I told myself then I’d go back one of these days.”

Cook wants to use education to reach her goals and fulfill her dreams. Time is irrelevant to her. Christ will provide.

Some would say she’s old. She would say she’s free.