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When I walk into a lecture hall for the very first time and the students realize I’m not the professor, but one of them, I usually get a stink-eyed stare or two. I’m impervious to it: I’m the mother of a 12-year-old girl.
I’ve always thought of myself as a basil person: vibrant green, symbolic of my vegetarian diet, and as sensitive as a hothouse flower. But academia has another name for people like me: mature students they call “non-traditionally aged,” as if we’re rogue cheddar cheese.
Mature students are called “SAGE,” as in the Simon and Garfunkel “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” song that draws on the medieval imagery and virtues that herbs represent.
The moniker is also a nod to the wisdom we’ve acquired through our numerous years of living.
Until I became a student for the second time, sage reminded me of that lowly winter herb, with its pallid green leaves and a distinct musky smell. Sage is what the wet towel at the bottom of the laundry hamper smells like.
For every surly stare I get from my classmates, I also receive 20 or more looks of understanding – or is it pity? (Spoiler alert: We all get old, if we’re lucky.)
Women like me – midlife, mid-career, and gamely fighting a losing battle with gravity – are returning to school in droves. I haven’t felt this trendy since my big-hair days, when I danced to Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough at the University of Guelph’s Bullring every Saturday night.
When the kids complain about having cereal for dinner – again – I tell them that we’re “trending.”
Though my friends and family think that I’m knocking myself out in Western’s MBA program, I am actually in Arts & Humanities.
Don’t you roll your eyes at me. Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature and a former Western student, has proved that creative writing is a credible pursuit. The world would be a better place if the arts got the respect they deserve.
With the stress of returning to school has come a new anthem: My earworm of late is Rent’s Seasons of Love, with a few liberties taken with the lyrics:
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred pages,/ Five hundred twenty-five thousand pages to read,/ Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred pages,/ How do you measure, measure a degree? In dollars, in cents,/ In headaches/ In handfuls of aspirin/ In worry,/ In ulcers,/ In panic,/ In stress.
For me, the infamous “Freshman 15” won’t come from consuming vast quantities of alcohol. The weight gain will come from endless hours of sitting and reading 525,600 pages of theory. As my daughter likes to say, “Mom, you’re gonna dent the chair.”
I have come to realize that my late Aunt Claire was right when she said there’s nothing wrong with raising children through “benign neglect.” I’ll do their homework for them when they do my homework for me.
They have learned that their thumbs are just as capable of pushing the buttons on the dishwasher and the washing machine as they are of texting friends with every insipid detail of their lives since they last parted company.
They pack their own lunches, and if they can figure out where I have hidden the candy bars known as “granola bars” they’ve hit the jackpot: no more lunchbox letdown. I should have grounded the helicopter years ago.
My academic journey is of Homeric proportion, not a straight path between A and B, but one filled with interesting distractions and detours. What’s on my iPod? Homer’s Odyssey.
Motherhood has made me an ideal student the second time around. I’m a master of multitasking – meals, music lessons, office, gym, hockey arena, homework.
Still, the blond-haired girl in my Classical Studies class makes me feel like an absolute slacker. I watch, drop-jawed and with a twinge of envy, as she effortlessly texts, take notes, checks her Facebook page and shops for incredibly expensive and completely impractical Ugg boots online. “Pay attention!” I want to say. “This course costs $1,200, and those boots are never going to keep your feet warm.”
I have learned that the laptop is not only an educational device: Once opened, it’s an impenetrable shield. Imagine 500 students with 500 Macs, their 5,000 fingers tapping madly to keep up with the professor’s words. Now close your eyes, and you’ll know what an alien invasion sounds like.
I have seen 2 a.m. more times since becoming a student again than in all the nights spent walking the hallway rocking my colicky middle child back to sleep. All-nighters are easier to handle when you don’t have a hangover, though they’re not nearly as much fun.
My memory may not be what it used to be, but I’ll take Shakespeare over Sudoku any day to work out my brain.
Going back to university has taught me I have a lot to learn about the craft of writing, but that I am not too old to plant a few seeds.
It’s been a humbling and thrilling experience, filled with stress-induced stomachaches, late nights, good grades and inspiring road songs.
Call me SAGE and cue the music.
Judith Mackay lives in London, Ont.
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