First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
This week, First Person looks at heading back to class, something that’s always challenging, even without a pandemic.
When I first decided to complete my degree, nearly 20 years after I had started it at the age of 19, I had intended to have my diploma mailed to me, rather than attending a commencement ceremony. “I don’t want to embarrass myself by making a big deal after all this time,” I initially thought.
But I quickly changed my mind. It is a big deal: it is a big deal to do something you love, it is a big deal to persevere, it is a big deal to be a little bit brave.
Years of untreated depression and anxiety combined with family collapse slowed my initial progress through my studies, occasionally even grinding them to a halt in my early twenties. By the end of my fifth year, I wasn’t quite done, nor was I finished by the end of my sixth. My peers had long since graduated and had moved on to new degrees, to new careers, to new cities, even to new continents. I admired them, I envied them and I felt entirely stuck.
I had begun to move on myself, meeting and marrying my husband, considering new fields of study, embracing new hobbies. Though I still loved what I was studying, I was tired of feeling left behind by my former classmates and I was tired of paying for the insult. It felt foolish and even indulgent to continue throwing money at my studies. The feeling was somehow intensified by the fact that I was now married and what had been only my debt was now ours. I quit my retail job, got a job in an office and didn’t bother registering for classes that fall. It was 2005 and I was three short courses shy of satisfying my degree, mere steps from the finish line of my academic marathon.
Life happened. We moved back and forth across Ottawa. An old friend died far too young, prompting my husband and I to ask, “What are we waiting for?” and we had our first child. We navigated moves, jobs, a house fire, and having another child; it had been six years since I’d last set foot in a classroom.
Three weeks after our second child was born, the small programme at Carleton from which I had almost graduated had an anniversary reunion, a chance for alumni to see each other again. I went, carrying my exceedingly new baby with me in a powder-blue sling, her tiny presence a welcome shield against the obvious question: “What are you doing now?”
One of our professors gave a short lecture – on Plato’s Theaetetus, delightfully tying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and I sat in that familiar room, the seats and lectern unchanged, listening to a familiar voice delivering familiar words, but the world was different. I was different, now sitting there a mother. But it stirred something old inside me, that thrill and excitement at turning thoughts into words and words into ideas. I still desperately wanted to learn.
I had always said I would go back, that I would complete my degree. “I’ll go back when the time is right,” I would say; “I’m just waiting for it to work out.” But it never quite did. As a stay-at-home-parent to two young kids, it was never convenient, especially with our family of four living on one income. I kept waiting for something, some sign or maybe permission, before I felt free to choose for myself.
Inheritance can be an awkward thing. It’s money unearned, the circumstance of it largely unwelcome. By the time my mother and then my grandmother died, it had been 10 and 12 years since I had last registered for classes. I didn’t want money: I wanted my mother and I wanted my grandmother, here and healthy and breathing. Instead, I got slips of paper with numbers on them, a pale and pathetic exchange. But a few years later, outside the blast-zone of loss, I thought about where I was, where I had been and my days ahead. I realized that the things that had stood in my way – grief and depression, finances, toddlers – no longer did. My children were solidly in the middle of childhood, my mind and mood were thriving, and the gifts left behind by my mother and grandmother lightened my financial burden.
“What am I waiting for?” I asked myself.
It felt like I had been waiting for my chance – for my time – forever, and I worried that if I continued putting off my return to class, I would end up waiting for the rest of my life. But I was deeply afraid: afraid that my intellect had atrophied from years of conversing almost exclusively with small children, as well as afraid that I would disrupt and unsettle our entire family by extricating myself from our established pattern. As afraid as I was, though, waiting was no longer tolerable.
My knees quaked mildly from a combination of nerves and copious cups of coffee as I hurried from the bus to the classroom that first evening. Settling into my seat, surrounded by students in their early 20s with laptops, I pulled out my notebook and pen, my old standbys from years past. Everything felt new and familiar, frightening and entirely comfortable. I was back in my element.
The first three months of my return to class, I spent almost all my spare time on my studies. I would wake before dawn, pulling on woollen socks and layers of fleece to sit at my desk in the corner of the dining room with a cup of coffee steaming beside my laptop and books. Every evening when I wasn’t at class I could be found in that spot, folded into my fuchsia desk chair as my family moved through their nights past me. Lectures and reading, meticulous note-taking, writing papers and studying for exams: it was exhausting and wonderful. Words and ideas were a feast, and I was ravenous. I had not realized just how hungry I had become until I dug in.
My daughters have watched me study; they have watched me dedicate myself to my own hard work. They have seen me satisfy my own hunger, break out of what I had been and venture into whatever might come next. My younger daughter asked me, just before finals, “What will you do when you aren’t sitting in your pink chair, Mommy?” It startled me, realizing how noticeable the shift in my life had been for her, how easily she had adapted, and that she, too, could see that this was only my beginning.
My older daughter tells me she is proud of me. I’m proud of me, too. Marching across that stage in my gown and hood at my convocation last November, I was grinning from ear to ear. And though I couldn’t see them in the crowd, I know my husband and daughters were, too.
Darlene McLeod lives in Ottawa.