I was thirty-seven the first time I chugged up the two hundred steps from the parking lot known as “the pit” to embark on my personal renaissance. I took my place in the brave new world of the university, one of a growing minority known as “re-entry” students—a politically correct label for older undergraduates starting or resuming their education. I was far from old, but the tag resonated for me. Re-entry. I was a single mother and had established a pattern of serial monogamy in my employment—one unsatisfying job after another—and my relationships. I had recently emerged from a three-year liaison that had trampled my ego and left it dragging the ground like a sack stuffed with wet towels. I was ready to be rocked out of my rut. I felt like I’d been lost in space for years and was now ready to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and plant my feet on solid ground.
When the Scarecrow sang, “My head I’d be scratchin’ while my thoughts were busy hatchin’…” he thought all he needed was a brain. But the Wizard—wise in the ways of the world even if not all-powerful—knew that the Scarecrow was fully capable of rational thought. What he lacked was a document—a credential, a certificate, a proclamation, a diploma, a decree—that attested to his innate intellect.
I had a brain. A good one that served me well. But in my own eyes and society’s, I too needed that piece of paper—proof in the form of a college degree—that would elevate me to the status I sought. I wanted to be and to be seen as educated, erudite, enlightened.
Neither of my parents finished high school, and that was the height of their aspirations for me. Though I was an honors student I was never encouraged, at home or at school, to continue my education. Coming from a working-class family, I was steered into job training and skill-building—typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping—instead of college prep classes, and then from high school into the secretarial pool, like a calf channeled into the chute for branding.
Rattling off more than a hundred words a minute, I was the fastest typist in my class. With an array of impressive skills I made a swift and painless transition into a clerical position with an investment firm. I didn’t consider alternatives—I may not even have known there were any—in my eagerness to be independent and on my own, to knock the small town dust off my low-heeled pumps and take on the big city twenty miles away. After a year or so I began to have second thoughts and a growing awareness of other options, a different path. I left my job and took work doing part-time technical typing in order to enroll in “junior” college, as community colleges were then called. Junior indeed—the students seemed silly and immature, the campus a playground, the classes tediously elementary. I quit during my second semester and went back to a responsible position in the world of high finance, where I enjoyed respect for my abilities, the immediacy of my paychecks and what they could buy, and a glittery social life. So sophisticated, so glamorous. So I thought.
It was years before I saw how short-sighted I’d been, more years before I could do anything about it.
San Diego State University was, still is, a self-contained city of 30,000-plus inhabitants wedged into a virtual island, an outcropping from canyons and freeway known as Montezuma Mesa. The alien environment overwhelmed me at first, the campus swarming with young bodies, like an incursion of locusts, but the buzz of charged vitality soon swept me up and embraced me. As I sought to carve out my spot, my experiences often reflected the oxymoronic anomaly of my “middle-aged undergraduate” standing and at times seemed to straddle an invisible line between worlds. I was close in age to a number of my professors, and sometimes they treated me like a contemporary. I socialized with them, even dated a couple of them, but that’s another story. When an instructor asked me to proctor one of her exams, she said, “You’re more like us than them.” While I enjoyed being singled out, I was in fact one of “them,” a student, and that was the role I had chosen to immerse myself in.
It wasn’t my intention to make myself conspicuous in the first meeting of the first class I attended. It was a survey of American literature, taught by Professor S., pompous and pedantic in suit and tie, his sparse graying hair slicked down over a liver-spotted scalp. If he’d ever been afire for literature, the flame had been trampled long ago by countless freshman feet, the ashes now cold and gray like his lifeless lectures. He addressed the students with rigid formality. The men were “Mr.,” and the women were asked, on that first day, to designate themselves as “Miss” or “Mrs.” Aren’t universities supposed to be more progressive than this, I wondered, incredulous. I was too steeped in feminism to succumb easily.
“I prefer to be called ‘Ms.,’” I requested with my most beatific smile.
“The options are Miss or Mrs.,” he said. “You’ll have to choose one or the other.”
I politely suggested that my marital status shouldn’t have a bearing on my class participation, and he replied with equal courtesy that he didn’t consider “Ms.” to be a legitimate title. Neither of us would budge, but he was in charge. When I refused to make a choice, he defaulted to “Miss.”
Still, the class was a bright beginning. The assigned readings awakened me to American classics—Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Cather and Welty—and contemporary writers like Oates and Updike. Dr. S. showed a flicker now and then, some inflection sparking his monotone. I remember him chuckling at the irony of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” His passion, I learned, was for Shakespeare; what had the poor guy done to deserve Am Lit 101?
I was an iconoclast again in Psychology of Personality, where we studied the theories of Freud, Jung, Ericson and a few lesser gods with Professor B., fiftyish, dark and handsome with a narrow-eyed mocking smile. At the first session, he asked us to identify with a character in Gone with the Wind. “How many of you see yourself as Scarlett? Melanie?” he quizzed the women, Rhett or Ashley to the men. The guys all chose the manly Rhett Butler over gentle Ashley Wilkes. No contest. Most of the women, however, favored the demure and self-effacing Melanie; I was one of a few who were willing to claim the brazen and blatantly selfish Scarlett O’Hara.
When the topic of penis envy arose in class discussions, some of us—the Scarletts—scoffed at the concept. Dr. B. smirked, “That’s because you suffer from it yourselves and can’t see it or won’t admit it.” Another time he told us that he envied the older students on campus, the courage and commitment required to reinvent themselves in mid-life. He observed that most of them are women; men may be too fixed in their lives, too afraid of change. I raised my hand and asked, “Would that be vagina envy?”
I would enter new classes with an eye out for my contemporaries, what I called “the grownups.” Barbara stood out from among a sea of straw-colored ponytails. Tall, stately and neatly coifed, she styled her russet waves in a bouffant “do” that was dated by any standards; her shirtwaist dresses and pleated skirts were like Victorian ball gowns next to the prevailing jagged-cuffed jeans and scruffy shorts. I took a seat beside her in a sociology class, and we exchanged a preliminary glance of recognition and acknowledgment.
Both sociology majors, we had several classes together, and it wasn’t until our senior year that she confessed that she’d never written a term paper. She had managed to find classes that didn’t require one, but now, with the remaining prerequisites whittled down to a few, she had no choice. Social Psychology was taught by a 1960s throwback who reminisced about the good old days when he and his students philosophized under the hallucinatory haze of LSD. He’d lost whatever passion he may have once had for teaching and now displayed a bitter sarcasm that hinted at what may have been his disappointment with the way life had turned out. Barbara agonized over her class paper. She asked me to read it over, and I thought it was a worthy effort. As Dr. P. returned the papers on the last day of class, he came down our aisle and said, “Barbara told me that she was worried about her writing….” I expected to him to say something about what a great job she’d done. Instead he sank his dagger heedlessly: “…and now I can see why.”
I took a class in Human Sexuality under the guise of better understanding social behavior but also to confront my lingering vestiges of prudishness. Our fiftyish, prim and matronly-looking professor—who told us not to be fooled by her appearance—showed “glide” films, explicit and varied sexual encounters that doubled as adult sex education and undergraduate porn. I endured them, along with my discomfort, in a state of wooden paralysis, hurrying out at the end of class. When the subjects were two men, the guys in the class scurried out of the room as if fleeing a measles epidemic; two women on screen kept everyone wide-eyed and glued to their seats. When the focus was a pair of geriatric couplers, everyone was frozen with embarrassment, eyes downcast, and faces grim.
Jaime sat by me in class, as sweet, good-looking and naive as a 20-year-old boy/man can be, with big brown eyes like saucers of rich warm gravy. The combination of my maturity and the racy class content must have been his impetus to make me his confidant and confessor. He expressed sheepish bewilderment when he told me about opening his dorm room door one night to a naked girl; he blushed as he admitted that he invited her in. When he mentioned that his parents “still do it,” frequently and noisily, I replied in mock horror, “Really? At their age?” He never asked about my own private life, and I never knew if I was a mother figure or an object of fantasy. A couple of my friends thought he was waiting for me to make the first move; I found the idea intriguing but terrifying.
Some years after I left the university, I read a novel in which the narrator relates her back-to-school experiences. I recognized myself in her description of herself at 45: a stereotype, epitomizing so many middle-aged women on college campuses, wearing half-frame reading glasses and Aerosole shoes, passionate about Virginia Woolf.
We mature scholars—even those of us without wrinkles, stoops and thinning or graying hair—stood out from the smooth-skinned, scantily-clad youth by our insatiable hunger, our urgent curiosity. We claimed the front rows of classrooms and savored every lecture, every discussion, every morsel of intellectual nourishment. We would gather in the Commons between classes to exchange and explore ideas. It was here that I became a coffee drinker—the warm burnt smell of reheated hours-old coffee still takes me back—and here that I found my niche in this new community of young and old. A previously unimagined future unfolded before me, the road steep—even more than two hundred steps—but straight and broad and beckoning.
Ah, the life of the mind, just as I’d envisioned it! The university was the place where I felt most alive and most accepted, where I felt a kinship with like-minded others. I graduated with honors and then signed on for another two years to complete a Master’s degree. I even considered a Ph.D. and a career in academia just to be able to spend the rest of my life on a college campus, but after six years I took my credentials into a new profession more suited to my goals and aptitudes.
A place can become part of you. It gets into your blood and your bones. Like being in water that’s body temperature, you almost don’t know where you end and it begins.
It’s been twenty-five years, but I go back to do research in the library and to take classes—last year it was Virginia Woolf’s novels, this semester it’s Memoir Writing. And it still feels like home, familiar and welcoming. I walk the newly landscaped grounds, all the paths I know so well. I browse the library shelves, putter around campus shops, buy a new red and black SDSU t-shirt, and meet my grandson—he’s a student here now—for lunch in the Commons. The campus has changed, but then again it hasn’t. A revamped entrance and a few new buildings don’t alter the familiar feel. The Commons used to be cafeteria-style halls; now they’re food courts with the same chains you see in the malls—McDonalds, Taco Bell, Sbarro, Subway, Starbucks—but students of all ages still gather over coffee and ideas. It’s still my power spot, and I feel the same prickle of anticipation and exhilaration with each re-entry, like splashing down from the high dive.
To those who might say—who did say—“Oh, but it wasn’t really about the degrees, was it; you just needed to bolster your self-confidence,” I have to differ. It was the degrees. They changed my life and opened the door to countless opportunities. The Scarecrow would no doubt agree with me that it made all the difference. In fact I think he said as much in an interview after the publication of his Pulitzer-winning memoir.