When co-workers spied him doing his math homework, 43-year-old actor and bartender Michael Armstrong felt embarrassed to admit he was trying to complete high school.
"The more people were accepting and patted me on the back, the more I opened up," the film and TV actor said. "It's empowering for myself and it's also empowering to hear that people are in the same position and wish they could go back to school."
Armstrong graduated as valedictorian for the Downtown East Education Centre Friday night.
"Dumb, stupid, you will never amount to anything. These were the words said to me over and over in my teenage years from my stepfather," Armstrong wrote in his speech that he forwarded to the Courier.
Armstrong said his stepfather kicked him out of their Calgary home before he could graduate, despite a visit from teachers who said he was bright. Armstrong moved out and secured a job in shipping and receiving. "I thought, I will get back to school... but I never did," Armstrong wrote in his speech.
For years, he dreamt he was approaching a podium at high school graduation and then would wake up in a cold sweat. But a chance encounter put Armstrong on a different course.
Armstrong was bartending when a friend suggested he apply to be an extra in a Sidney Poitier film that was shooting in Calgary. "A friend of mine said, 'They need black people,'" Armstrong said.
He resisted for weeks but eventually gave in.
Lost on the set of the 1995 TV movie Children of the Dust, he approached a man who steered him in the right direction. It was only after he walked away that Armstrong realized it was Poitier. The next thing he knew, Armstrong was playing Poitier's character's right-hand man.
Others on the set told Armstrong he should move to Los Angeles to pursue acting. He says Poitier recommended he move to Vancouver, where actors of colour were needed.
Armstrong moved to Vancouver in 1996. He swiftly secured a role on Stargate SG-1 and then on shows that include Dark Angel and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer under the name Michasha Armstrong. "I was meeting all these great people, Hugh Jackman, and hanging out with them, but I was always frustrated because I was thinking if I want to be a thespian I need to be going to school. I'm going to be discovered that I don't know how to do math properly or I don't know how to spell properly. That was really bothering me."
Armstrong discovered the Downtown East Education Centre while on a film shoot, learned the government would pay for his schooling and immediately signed up. Two years on, he can leave his nightmares about not having graduated behind. Armstrong is considering pursuing a fine arts degree at the University of B.C. at the urgings of professors he's befriended at his bartending job.
The Vancouver School Board operates six centres that help adults complete high school and offers upgrading on a limited basis for those who've graduated. Courses range from literacy level to Grade 12. David Morita, principal at the Downtown East centre, believes 575 adults will receive a Dogwood certificate this year.
"I chose acting or it chose me but I pursued it fiercely but nowhere near as fierce as my Grade 12 diploma," Armstrong wrote in his speech. "The sky is truly the limit."