All eyes are on me as I step into the room. “Are you the prof?” asks a girl holding a yellow form of some kind before I get a chance to skulk past her.
“No, sorry,” I reply for the second time this week.
I try to take a seat without drawing any further attention to myself, but it’s too late. There are no spots left in the anonymous section at the back, and I am forced to sit in the middle of the front row – the archetypal mature student. I can feel their eyes burning into the back of my neck, attempting to figure out why I am here. Am I someone’s mother?
Being a full-time university student in my 30s, I am somewhat of an enigma. I possess both pimples and wrinkles, long blonde hair but sensible shoes. I am intimidating and invisible. I am more scared of them than they are of me.
I come from a celebrated lineage of university dropouts. Both my parents attended university in the seventies, but decided they were more into each other than third-year economics. While I would like to tout their decision as a regrettable turn of fate, they defied the odds and became successful small-business owners with a barely discernible undercurrent of disdain for postsecondary education. As a result, I was encouraged to follow whichever path I chose in life, but never pushed into the one-way superhighway of academia.
I suppose I could blame them for my abysmal first foray into the academic world, but that would be unfair. And a lie. The truth is that I was young, insecure and a bit of a hedonist. At 19, I really didn’t give an existential excrement for Nietzsche, and spent the majority of my time in the campus pub. My most memorable first-semester lesson was that you couldn’t legally purchase a pint before 11 a.m.
Although the spoils of youth and ignorance of consequences were factors in my educational demise, there was an underlying reason for my behaviour – the manifestation of an unexpressed latent desire, if you will (all these years and I still remember bits and pieces of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory).
In hindsight, I can see that what terrified me was the possibility everyone would discover I was not innately brilliant. Since I had chosen not to live in residence, every one of my classmates was a stranger. The mere thought of raising my hand in class to answer a question, exposing myself to a room full of hostile, judgmental peers who would immediately know that I had coasted through Grade 13 biology, sent me into a tizzy of anxiety. I was a basket case by October.
Dropping out wasn’t a complete catastrophe, however. I met and married the man of my dreams before becoming privy to the adversities of life. I had my kids young, affording me the requisite energy needed to rear two little girls, if not the financial assets. I will have an empty nest in my 40s, allowing many premenopausal years of freedom and travel.
Yet, a niggling voice constantly reminds me that without a degree, I’ll always be the bridesmaid and never the bride.
So, with no money, two kids, a mortgage, a husband who works out of town and an old sick dog, I am a university freshman.
At times, it’s a little surreal that I’m older than the professor, or that the kid sitting beside me was born the year I dropped out.
Weathering the storm of concerned friends and family has been rough. “How can you afford to go back to school?” Um, I can’t. “Don’t you know we’re in the middle of a recession?” Um, I do. “What will you do with an English literature degree?” Um, I’m not sure yet.
My favourite question is, “What about the children?” To be fair, they have worn a few dirty shirts and prepackaged lunches have left this house after an all-night essay-writing marathon but, overall, it has been a positive experience for them to see firsthand that you’re not indebted to your mistakes forever.
I’ve met a number of other mature students on campus and notice the same look of quiet desperation in their eyes. Some are like me and have chosen to rectify a choice made years ago. Others have come through a life-changing ordeal such as cancer, divorce or job loss and want a better life for themselves and their kids. All have complicated lives and have taken a huge risk by returning to school later in life.
The majority of the Generation Y students I’ve met so far are incredible. They’re bright, determined and light-years ahead of where I was at their age.
There are still those, however, who forget that university is a privilege unattainable to many kids in Canada. The girl who mistook me for the philosophy professor is now sitting a few seats down, and has been texting since class began. The mother in me awakens and I want to tell her to turn off the damn phone and pay attention, but it isn’t my place.
Sometimes I want to scream at them all and warn them not to waste the next four years of their lives. Don’t make the mistakes I made! Don’t let this opportunity pass you by! Mostly, I just sit quietly and try to keep up.
My philosophy professor interrupts my reverie, asking the class to whom the following quote is attributed: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Raising my hand I feel my heart begin to race, the sweat pool in my armpits and the breath rush from my lungs like the aftermath of a fist to the gut. I can feel them all looking at me, waiting to hear what the old lady has to say.
“Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche.”
Lee Puddephatt lives in Guelph, Ont.
Follow us on Twitter: