For at least twenty years, I’ve been loitering around college campuses in one place or another, dancing around my desire to return to school as a serious student.
When I accompanied my kids on their college tours, I wished I could go too-- and settle the score with my own thwarted dreams. Finally, like the old maxim goes, not doing the thing became harder than doing the thing, and I decided I wanted that elusive MFA. I wrote feverishly, working on my application essays like nothing else mattered. The stakes were high, blinking at me in red neon lights.
Being accepted made me radiant, but the lag of time to starting school in the fall was excruciating. The next best thing? I attended the summer writers program at Sarah Lawrence to jumpstart my experience. By the time the fall semester began, I knew my way around campus. Attending the craft talks had allowed me access to a variety of faculty members. In the relaxed environment of summer dinners outside The Pub, I met a few students from the program who were taking workshops. Some were studying outside their genre; others, like me, hungered to be around campus during the summer.
As orientation approached, I was restless with repetitious dreams at night about forgetting something on the first day of school and being caught unprepared. In my waking life, I worried that some boulder would be thrown in my path--an unforeseen family drama, illness, something murky lurking in the background to spoil my plans.
At the wizened age of fifty-five, it was my first day of school, as nervous-making as the Septembers of childhood. I was surprised to meet people across a broad age range. It was just as easy to engage the people twenty or thirty years younger as those whose milestones aligned more evenly with my own. We all shared the same purpose; school is a great equalizer.
Still, I couldn’t help being drawn to those I met who, like me, had been out of academia for a few decades. I was insatiably curious about what drew them back to campus. It seemed we shared a similar narrative of wanting to reinvent ourselves and do something life-changing. I’d taken several writing workshops and amassed notebook after notebook representing years of attempts to convey my thoughts. Shelves in the hall closet groaned with my efforts-- and this was where my writing remained. At mid-life, there is a realization that the first half of life is in the rear view. The unfulfilled promises you’ve made to yourself stand out in high relief. For me, my writing ambitions took on a shape and size that could not be ignored.
I’ve had two classes on the same day for both semesters. At first I was disappointed, because I thought I wanted to spread out my schedule. I’ve discovered that I love powering through a long day at school. It feels like a marathon, and my energy compounds during the course of the day. I experience a let-down when the day of classes is completed, and I have to wait another week for those invigorating discussions around the seminar table. I assess what needs to be done for the following week, and I often wonder how on earth I’ll finish the work. But I do, working furiously. Sometimes, I’m a day or two ahead of schedule.
During the first semester, I wasn’t all that happy with what I was writing, but, hey, I was still on cloud nine and sprinkled with fairy dust just being at graduate school.
When I thought I wasn’t making any progress, a paper I wrote for an assignment provoked me to think outside my usual box. My work became more expansive and clear. I ended the semester in an optimistic mood about what I might accomplish in the future.
Returning to school has renewed my faith in myself and the malleability of my brain. I’d become an increasingly scattershot reader, finishing books only when I was truly invested, tossing them aside when I felt bored. Now, I have to read to completion, whether I like it or not. The variety of writers I’ve been exposed to has broadened my horizons, and I’ve become a more insightful reader. For example, studying a David Sedaris story in class— paragraph by paragraph— helped me understand the dialectical and subtext. I’ve long been a Sedaris fan, but I never really understood why his humorous and poignant family stories affected me so deeply-- at the same time making me guffaw. Now, I have a better understanding how the writer subtly converses with his issues.
“So what are you working on?” is the nature of my small talk over coffee in Heimbold-- or in Slonim with a slice of pizza in hand. Second year students had warned me at the beginning of the year that the program would fly by, a notion that seemed incomprehensible at the time. Well, it’s spring break of my first year, and I can safely say, time is accelerating, mach speed, and I’m pumping the brakes. Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m looking forward to hitting on that stack of books I’ve been collecting. Reading for pleasure has never seemed so delicious and decadent. I’m planning to indulge like never before; September classes are right around the corner.