August is a time of great anticipation and apprehension as summer comes to an end. Parents are excited and children who are young enough not to know better are excited too. I must admit that August still has the refreshing feel of new beginnings for me- new books, new supplies, new teachers. It was ever green hope that the new school year would somehow be better, be different.
New Year’s Day has this same quality, a ritual celebration to compartmentalize last year’s events and memories, to put it away in favor of new beginnings. By the way, how are those resolutions coming along? I consider it a time to adjust and recommit to goals I was already working on, not make new ones. And one of those goals is to become a better writer.
January is also ‘back to school’ time, though most students are still reeling from the fall semester. For many, the spring semester is just the continuation of the academic year that they have to slog through to get to summer break. But consider that there are freshmen who start college late or high school seniors who start early. For them it is new and exciting. Consider the so-called ‘non-traditional’ student who is over age 40, who might be living up to that New Year’s resolution to finish their education or start a new career.
I am a lifelong learner, teased in my 20’s for being a professional student because I struggled so long with school. But I did finish my first degree by age 25 and my second by age 29, clearly an old maid by college graduate standards. That’s back when people always assumed I would fail, give up.
Those days are long gone.
When I started in the early 90’s, there was no focus on ensuring people finished school and only 25% of those who started actually did. It was assumed that at 18, you were an adult now and you would sink or swim based on your merit. If you failed, it was your fault. What I will say about that is while some talents are innate, having the right information, resources, and/or support varies wildly among students. If you have it, be grateful. College is hard. It’s really hard.
My mom was a non-traditional student. She decided to finish her education and become an RN after age 40, five kids, and 20+ years of marriage. I was the youngest. I remember going to class with her at the local community college whenever I had a day off from grade school and she didn’t have a babysitter. I would sit and color or do other activities. As much as my mother hoped I would become a housewife with children, she modelled educated career woman for me.
This academic year, I am once again taking undergraduate classes in English. Back in the early 90’s, I tried to be an English major at the University of Iowa. Creative writing classes were always full, and I found myself stuck in literary analysis classes (boring) with students far more well-read than I was. This is back when I filled notebooks, wishing I was a writer. I gave up trying and switched to a technical career and I have been successful.
But what is innate, what we are born with, never leaves us. I could not stop writing even if I wanted to.
So, I make my living with information technology and I make my life with the arts. One of the benefits of working for a university is access to classes at a discount (No, I do not get summers off and I do not go to school for free). But most of the classes I want to take are during the day. I have been unwilling to arrange my work hours around it because I want to be done with work and home by 5pm. January 12th was my 12-year anniversary on the job. In all that time, I have only taken two undergraduate fiction writing classes- one at night and one through distance learning- though my roster of workshops and non-credit classes is very, very long.
But in the age of COVID-19, the rules have changed.
In academic year 20-21, all the creative writing classes are online! And it happens that the poetry classes I want to take are also at night. When I realized that I would finally be able to formally study poetry, I signed up for both fall and spring semesters. Back at Iowa, I did not think poetry would serve my career. So, I never thought to take the classes even though I’ve loved poetry since I was a child. And to all those who think I made the right choice, I offer this quote:
“There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either.” -Robert Graves
The last time I took an undergraduate class, I was in my 30’s and could pass for being younger than I really was. Now, I am nearing 50 and I was the oldest student in my fall poetry class. There was one man older than me, in his 70’s, and he dropped the class. There were two guys in their 30’s finishing their degrees with this elective.
Everyone else was a 20-something… Oh, to be that sure of your experience… Sophomore comes from Greek and translates to ‘Wise Fool’. My class was filled with people old enough to have endured some hard knocks but still young enough not to be utterly caved in. What fresh perspectives and enthusiasm they have! It’s hard not to be energized by the hope of youth.
It takes a lot of guts for non-traditional students to return to any kind of schooling, higher ed or otherwise, to obtain their credentials for a better career. And while it really is never too late, it is hard to relate to people 20+ years younger. I have also felt a little embarrassed. While there is an effort on the part of the class to make you feel welcome, there is always some regret about the decisions we felt we had to make when we were their age. More than once, I have wished I had stayed in Iowa City and completed my English degree, to do that work I was born to do.
But instead, I muddle through one class at a time (as the odd one out), one book at a time (as my schedule allows), ever striving, ever improving, ever dreaming of some day.
May I always remain teachable.
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2021