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At thirtysomething, I'm a university freshman

Dominic McKenzie/The Globe and Mail

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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