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Going back to school after 30
By Jo Brans |

The smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life was to go back to school. I include marriage and motherhood. Marriage gave me a best friend and lover, and motherhood gave me two irreplaceable companions, but going back to school gave me someone more necessary even than husband and children. It gave me myself. I am who I am today because at the age of 34-13 years after I “finished my education” by graduating from college-I somehow mustered up the wit and the pluck (two qualities that were remarkably lacking in my life at that point) to get back into the classroom and to stay there until it did some good.

Perhaps “smart” is the wrong word. Like all important decisions, including marriage and motherhood, going back to school involves much that isn’t rational-it involves that desperate human combination of need and hope. We voice the needs:

“I need a break from diapers and dishwashing.”

“It’s a way to meet people. You’re gone so much and I get lonely.”

“I’ve spent 15 years looking at other people’s teeth. There must be more to life than this.”

“If I’m ever going to work again, I need to brush up on my skills, catch up in the field, make a few contacts.”

But underneath the needs lie those unvoiced, unvoice-able and inexplicit hopes:

“I used to be good in English. Maybe I still am.”

“All I ever hear about is briefs and cases. It would be fun to have someone to talk to about music and art.”

“Cheryl says that with my background in math, I’m a natural for this computer-science program.”

“You never know; this could lead to a really good job offer.”

And deeper still lie the fears:

“If I can’t keep up, I can always drop it.”

“If you or the kids seem to be suffering, I can always drop it.”

“If it cuts into my practice, I can always drop it.”

“I’m just going to check it out-they may not even let me in, you know.”

Scott Fitzgerald once thought that there were “no second acts in American lives,” but he was wrong. All over America, adults with needs, hopes and fears such as these are crowding into college classrooms, eager to get what they missed before, to make up for lost time. Educational Rip Van Winkles, we are waking up and smelling the coffee. At the end of 1981, Newsweek reported that one-third of all American college students were 25 or older. At SMU, where I teach, the figure is higher now: A letter to “students older than average” in the fall of 1982 informed them that they made up a staggering 38 percent of the total SMU student body. By 1990, trend-readers predict, the number of college students over 25 and those under 25 will be about equal.

Who are these people? A career profile of applicants to SMU’s prestigious Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program reveals that teachers, sales personnel, housewives, secretaries, businessmen, doctors and lawyers (but no Indian chiefs) requested admission in 1982. Surprisingly, in view of the interdisciplinary subject matter of MLA classes, almost one-fourth of the 1982 applicants came from business and another near-fourth came from the medical and legal professions. In a contemporary literature class that I taught for the MLA last fall, the group was amused when, in introducing ourselves during the first class meeting, we discovered we had three doctors among us – an allergist, a neurologist and an internist, as I remember. “Now all we need is a psychiatrist, and we can handle anything,” someone quipped.

The door opened, and a distinguished-looking older man walked in. The irrepressible class greeted him with, “Are you a doctor?” He looked a little baffled, but nodded. Then they asked, “Well, are you a psychiatrist?” When he nodded once again, I thought I’d better explain to the poor man before he abandoned higher education permanently. The episode contradicted the law of averages, but confirmed the character – and spirit – of many adult-education classes.

“We have an incredible mix of people,” says Gail Thomas, director of the non-credit Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which opened in January 1981. “Men and women of all ages, graduate students from other schools who come for fun, dentists, lawyers, accountants, women in public relations and advertising, museum docents, artists – you name it,” she says. “On Wednesday nights, when we have free lectures open to the public with wine and conversation afterward, over 100 people will crowd into our lecture room, which really only holds 80. But people love crowding in, scrooching up. I think that really makes it better for them.”

Unlike the adults who went back to school on the GI Bill after World War II, most of this new breed are women. According to a government report published in 1975, the number of adult women students increased 45 percent between 1969 and 1975, compared with an 18 percent increase for men.

I was one of that new breed, slightly in advance of the guard, and although I was a little young to think of myself as Rip Van Winkle, I must say there were moments during my first year of graduate school when I felt like Rip. To begin with, I had graduated from Belhaven College, a Presbyterian and Calvinist girls’ school in Mississippi, during the Fifties. My 150 college sisters and I were sheltered from the rigors of life in ways that seem quaint today. By divine ordinance (or so it seemed), we attended church on Sundays, wore hats and hose whenever we went downtown, strictly abstained from tobacco, from alcohol and largely from men (only seniors were allowed to single-date in cars). Sexually, we were as decorous or as sneaky as Jane Austen heroines. When I came out to Texas shortly after graduation, I understood perfectly the brown-bag liquor laws and blue laws that were still in effect. I had never had a drink that hadn’t come from a brown bag, and Belhaven girls were not allowed to spend money on Sunday – period.

I was a good student – in part because I loved books, in part because there wasn’t much else to do. And I learned a lot. If we requested a class, it got on the schedule, even if it had to be tutorial (several of my English classes had only two students). So I stayed at Belhaven in spite of the excitingly decadent appeal of Ole Miss and the ultrasophistication of Millsaps College just down the street. When I finished, with honors, no one suggested graduate school. Belhaven girls did not go to graduate school. I formed a hazy scheme of living on the beach in Galveston and writing sonnet sequences. Instead, I taught school in Houston and got married.

Understand that I don’t regret any of this. I chose Belhaven, as I chose marriage and the two children that came along in an orderly fashion. But about six or seven years after I graduated, I told my husband, “I need a break from diapers and dishwashing,” thinking to myself, “I used to be good in English; maybe I still am,” and suppressing the fear that “they may not even let me in.” He was all for it, and it only took me another six or seven years to get up the nerve to see what “they” said.

“They” was the English department at the University of Texas at Austin. The year was 1968, a time of peak enrollment and high campus unrest. Imagine, if you can, a girl-woman (I’m not sure which) whose notions of college were predicated on the Belhaven model, and you will understand why the simple act of registration almost did me in. August in Austin, the mercury hovering around 100 degrees, the English department lines making a long S around Gregory Gym – registration was not fun. Standing in my nice-young-wife dress and heels, I felt absurd and conspicuous among the long-haired, bearded boys and the braless, barefoot girls in cutoffs.

When I came out of the gym and struggled back across campus about 5 o’clock that afternoon, I discovered that I could not remember where I had parked my car, and I circled block after block on those silly heels looking for it. At last I stopped, sweating and red-faced, took off the hateful shoes, walked barefoot into a drugstore on the Drag and called my husband to come and take me to my car, which turned out to be less than a block away. He laughed; I resolved angrily never to do that again. Every subsequent defeat (and there were many) made me angry and more resolute.

“Adults are fighters, resilient and strong,” SMU professor Willard Spiegel-man says. “When you hand a paper with a low grade on it back to a 19-year-old, he’s apt to crumble and be discouraged, but low grades make an adult say, ’I’ll show him.’

“I remember having two adult women in a poetry course once. When I gave back the first papers, one of the women had gotten a B or a B-, and she protested, ’I’ve never gotten a B on anything before. I’ve always made As!’ Actually, she had one of the better papers in the class.

” ’How do you feel?’ I asked her.

” ’Mad,’ she said. ’This will make me work harder. I’ll do better next time.’ And she did.”

Something like that happened to me during my first year in graduate school. In a Saturday morning poetry seminar, a professor asked me to write an explication of an incredibly abstruse poem, one of John Berryman’s “dream songs.” To give you an idea of what I was up against, the poem began:

During the father’s walking – how he look down by now in soft boards, Henry, pass and what he feel or no, who know? – as during his broad father’s, all the breaks and ill-lucks of a thriving pioneer back to the flying boy in mountain air…

and from this clarity, went off into obscurity. To put it mildly, we had not read this sort of thing at Belhaven, where Yeats and Frost had been considered flaming moderns. I sweated ink and turned in a turgid and tentative paper, which came back with no comment but a large, ugly B.

The lack of comment confused me. Humbly, I went to the professor. “Would you mind showing me where I went wrong?” I asked. “I didn’t feel very confident, but I’d really like to understand the poem. I did try pretty hard.”

He harrumphed. “Some interpretations are just better than others,” he equivocated, “so 1 gave you a B.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “What would an A paper have said about that poem?”

He didn’t know. He hadn’t a clue. He made me so mad that I decided to get even with him and John Berryman by understanding at least one of those poems, and several years later I published my first printed piece on the poetry of Berryman. (I still don’t understand that particular poem.)

IN ADDITION to a fighting spirit, adults also bring to the classroom a practical wisdom accumulated from having lived for 45 or 50 years. This knowledge of life often compensates for an educational innocence. Martha Satz was teaching a philosophy class in ethics at one of the community colleges. The class consisted of 19 older men, several of them veterans of World War II. “We were raising some complicated moral issues,” she says, “which were pretty much abstractions for me.

“Then one of the men in the class told us he had been a dope addict and had spent so many years in prison. Another one of them had had an army job of witnessing executions. That kind of perspective makes a discussion of ethics much more interesting than anything most undergraduates have to offer.”

Sometimes this life experience can take a comical turn in the classroom. Once I was teaching Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! to an adult class. We had been discussing the first section, in which adventurer Thomas Sutpen buys 100 square miles of prime Mississippi bottom land and builds an impressive white-columned Southern mansion from the native trees growing on it.

One of the men in the group looked more and more thoughtful. All at once, in the middle of my disquisition on the Sutpen plantation as a metaphor for the culture of the Old South, built by inhumane imagination and slave labor, he burst out, “He’s using green lumber!”

I paused, rattled. “What, Bill?”

“He’s using green lumber! He’d better let that lumber age, or it will warp and that house will be a mess!” Heatedly, a couple of others joined in, and we had a merry old time until someone suggested that because Sutpen was using virgin forest, the wood had aged on the trees, and the house would be all right. (Don’t ask me.) We were all relieved that Faulkner had known what he was talking about, but I have never been able to read Absalom since without thinking of the practical and physical details of actually building such a house. Adults can teach the teacher.

Luis Martin, a history professor popular with adult students, puts it another way. “An older group will accept something ’strange’ that I say readily because they’ve seen more of life than undergraduates. A typical freshman may look uneasy and say to himself, ’Is this guy crazy, or what?’ But adults are much less conventional in their thinking.

“What they won’t accept is dogma. I’d rather raise questions and see how comfortable we are with several viable answers. You can’t be dogmatic with adults; they’ve all lived enough to know of exceptions to every dogma.”

ADULTS ALSO have high expectations of class and teacher. Undergraduates will cheer when a teacher announces a “walk” (lingo meaning no class); adult students will smile politely but groan inwardly and let their disappointment be known later. Dallas Morning News writer Sheila Taylor graduated from TCU during the late Fifties, taught, married, had children and decided in 1977 that she wanted to be a writer. She enrolled in journalism courses at the University of Texas at Arlington – “not for another degree, just for courses to brush up my skills and to build up my self-confidence,” Sheila says. “I’d been out of school for 18 or 19 years, and I knew I couldn’t afford to waste any more time. I resented it when a professor wasn’t prepared, and I certainly didn’t want walks – I’d been on a walk for two decades!”

Like Sheila, I didn’t want walks. I could hardly wait to get to class, and I savored every moment. The political speeches on the front campus at UT during the late Sixties, the strikes in the classroom, the haze of marijuana smoke in remote corners of the library stacks, the Larry Caroline firing and the “Save Our Trees” campaign, the near-nudity and the more-than-near copulation in the grass outside the student union, I found interesting to observe but unreal. Nothing would have induced me to cut a class – strike or no strike.

Oh, I went through the motions of belonging to the younger generation who became my peers. I made myself a gray miniskirt out of polyester as heavy as sheet metal, with which I wore boots and a white leather cap. When the girl next to me in Anti-Intellectualism in Modern Literature told me she’d picked up a strange guy at the record store and “made out with him on the floor all night,” I learned not to gasp. When my friend Wayne came into class in his usual motorcyclist’s outfit, brushing his long hair off a clammy brow, and eased into the seat next to me muttering, “Watch out for me, Jo – I dropped acid this morning,” I watched out.

I saw Elvira Madigan, heard Tom Wolfe, bought Bridge Over Troubled Water and played the Stones: “You can talk about your midnight rambler. Whump. You can talk about your midnight gambler. Whump.” I did these things in the same way I would drive on the left in England, drink wine with my meals in France, say “yes, ma’am” in Mississippi – I was observing the customs of the country. But these were niceties, peripheral to my main interests. What I really wanted was to learn.

There they sit, these “students older than average” – clothes neat, makeup straight, faces attentive. Younger students can be fooled by these calm facades. “What does she have to worry about?”, a sorority girl asked me about an older woman in a class I taught last year. “I mean, she’s married and everything.” I happened to know that the woman had a stormy marriage with an abusive and alcoholic husband whom she had just decided to leave and that her 14-year-old son had announced that he would go with his father if they split. Part of the problem in the marriage, though certainly not all, was that this woman had come back to school.

In addition to the obvious problems of time budgeted between work, home and class, and money budgeted to cover books, tuition and child care, older students have two other large concerns: insufficiently sympathetic spouses and their own fears. Normally enlightened, loving, fair-minded husbands (and I suppose wives, too, though I know less about that) react with childish jealousy and indignation when confronted with what they consider an inordinate interest on the part of their mates in course and teacher. “I don’t know what husbands resent exactly,” says Sheila Taylor. “What you’re accomplishing? Your move toward independence? The time it takes to succeed?”

Maybe all of the above, which are especially frightening for husbands whose wives have been at home for most of the marriage. A new graduate student told me recently that when she would work at the dining room table – where else? – on the first paper she had written in 15 years, her banker husband would stand looking over her shoulder and say, “When I was in school, I could just whip those things out in two hours.”

He’d also sit down in his chair, put his feet up and yell across to her as she struggled with symbolism, “Honey, would you get me a Coke?” Any parent recognizes these tactics as the sort of tricks that 3-year-olds pull when they feel left out – understandable, perhaps, but a little unreasonable in a 45-year-old man.

As her professor, I felt like the villain in his eyes and was uncomfortable because I liked him and found him a decent and charming person. “If only she weren’t so intense about it,” he said to me in her presence. He sighed, and my heart went out to him. Because that’s a fact: We are all too intense, we students older than average. We have to be intense or we would never make it. Our own fears would simply overwhelm us.

“The main advice I’d give to someone thinking about going back,” Taylor says, “is, Do it! Don’t think about it. Don’t worry about ’never catching up,’ which is an affliction to some women. I used to be afraid I’d go back and study journalism and then have to start at the bottom – 40 years old and writing obits for some newspaper.

“I told myself, ’All the others my age will be editors or managers,’ and you know, it’s kind of embarrassing. It would hurt my pride. It’s easier to be out of it; a housewife has a good excuse, in a way.”

In Sheila’s case, those worst fears were never realized. After her first semester back, she got a paying job on the school newspaper, won some college journalism awards and began free-lance writing for the Texas Observer. When she applied for work at the News, she had to wait a few months for a vacancy, then she went to work for the Today section. Now she writes a column that is syndicated by Field News Service – all this in the last three years or so.

Sheila came back to school because she wanted to create a profession for herself, but many other adults (“99 percent,” says Luis Martin, who, as a national board member of the MLA, has visited MLA programs all across the country) are really concerned with more broadly humanistic goals for themselves. “Many of these adults are already successful professionals,” Martin says. “They don’t want more training. They want to integrate other new ideas into their careers in order to enrich their lives.”

Spiegelman agrees: “All last winter, a large group of adults turned out one night a week to hear me talk about poetry. Poetry! After they got over their initial resistance to the form, they picked favorites. People would come up to me after class and say, ’The most moving thing I ever heard was the poetry of John Donne’ or Elizabeth Bishop or whoever it happened to be. A new note was being struck for them, a variation. Something was missing in their lives, something they could be taught. I wasn’t an authority figure, but simply an authority.

“I recall once on a particularly nasty night expressing amazement that they’d come-they weren’t getting any credit, you know. And one man, a doctor, said, ’You don’t understand. This is’ – no, he said,’ You are the high point of our week.’ That certainly makes one stop and think.”

Gail Thomas expresses it in Jungian terms. “I think that after people have gone to college, gotten a degree, majored in something, gone to work, somewhere in midlife something happens. Something comes from the depths of the soul that says, ’This is not enough.’ We work so hard to prove ourselves, make money, get our homes established, and something comes from within to say, ’There must be something more.’ I think people go back to school for value.”

Whatever reasons we come for, what often happens when we come back to school is that we fall in love – with a group, with books, with ideas, with teachers, with all the factors in the process of our own regeneration. And falling in love is intense. Paint the trees greener, the sky bluer, the world brighter. Dismiss Old Man Blues; bring on the dancing girls. People like my friend Willard, in school nonstop for 27 years from nursery school through a Ph.D. at Harvard and straight into five years of university teaching before he got his first leave (“time off for good behavior,” as he puts it), probably can’t fully understand what it means to come back.

“We’re not in the therapy business per se,” says Mary Miller, dean of SMU’s School of Continuing Education. “But I’ll bet we are, anyway. We just make life better for people.” Ongoing studies by the University of Wisconsin Medical School of 2,000 older Americans indicate that taking courses does for mental well-being what exercise classes do for physical health.

First, there is the group. Graduate classes form solid friendships, but even when an older student enters an undergraduate class, alliances are created. “Without doubt,” Spiegelman says, “an older woman upgrades the class. She’s punctual; she’s prepared. The kids see her as a mother figure but realize she’s scared out of her mind. They rush to give her information and support. They become equals.”

WHEN I WENT back to school in1968, no official university arms welcomed me, as older students are now welcomed at SMU and most other schools.SMU Student Concern defines itself as “aservice organization serving nontradi-tional aged students” and promises”workshops on stress and increasing studyskills and social events,” but “no dues, nohazing and you will never get a letter addressed ’to the parents of ’ ” Numerous scholarships are also available now,especially for women.

Individual professors encouraged me during the late Sixties, especially my venerated adviser, Dr. Gordon Mills, who became director of graduate studies my last year at Texas. But if there was a Welcome Wagon for older students, I never saw it. I even remember Dr. Mills telling me of a proposal at one point to reject anyone over 40 who applied as a beginning graduate student. He also told me that Mrs. Mills had announced that she would leave him if he approved it. It was not approved.

But the group filled in some of the gaps that official disinterest allowed. Carl Rogers was in vogue, and my graduate school friends and I talked jokingly but with an undercurrent of seriousness about being “significant others” to each other, as we talked about “I – Thou relationships” and “the thingness of the thing.” This last idea, which I grabbed out of the air but which comes, the erudite tell me, from the phenomenology of Husserl, and the ramifications of which I mistakenly or correctly added to it, turned my life around. I fell in love with an idea.

To this day I don’t know what it meant to Husserl, but let me try to say what it meant to me. All my life – as a “young lady” in a little Mississippi town, as a member of the Baptist church, as a student in a Calvinist college, as a proper wife and mother – I had aspired to live by principles. The word “should” dominated my entire experience.

Looking at life without preconceived principles – looking at “the thingness of the thing” – was a revolutionary approach. I could take off my hat and my hose and my “should.” I could spend money on Sunday if I liked, and I did like. The glorious world with its bedazzling array of delights lay before me like a well-laden buffet table, “thingness” to be tasted, enjoyed, sampled.

In everything I read I encountered, it seemed, this idea of liberation, of possibility. In Nietzsche: “Avoid the glittering scales of the dragon ’Thou shalt,’ and assert the counter claim, ’I will.’ ” In Henry James: “Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.”

In all these forms I received a new vision of the world. Gail Thomas was perhaps getting at the same thing when she told me that a liberal education provides for “the contemplation of the world aside from its function. We can see a building for its shape, its size, the way it reflects the sun, the way it sits in its place on the earth – not just for its function. We back away and decide we’re not going to use it, we’re going to see it.”

“Men and women come back to school because they want to put together the jigsaw puzzle of life,” Martin says. “They are searching for more than knowledge. They want to put the pieces together in a meaningful way, to achieve the balance of body, mind and soul that the Greeks called sophrosyne.” Martin talks well, with his Spanish lilt and his gift for metaphor, but the rest of this particular speech was lost on me after he used the Greek word. I was instead plunged into a memory of the greatest event for me of my graduate school days. The event was named William Ar-rowsmith, and the occasion was the first class I took with him, a class in Greek tragedy.

Sociology texts on adult education would have us believe that adults don’t need a teacher, that they learn on their own. Don’t you believe it for a minute. I had no relationship with Arrowsmith outside the classroom. I don’t know that if I passed him on the street today I would recognize him, and I’m sure he wouldn’t recognize me. Nevertheless, I fell in love with him. To me, after the first day in that first class of 150 students, he incarnated everything that I valued in going back to school. If he had suggested to us that sticking one’s head in the fire was a Greek thing to do, I would no doubt have singed my white leather cap. My teacher had spoken.

For those of us who go back to school are a little like the beautiful maiden – is it Sleeping Beauty? – doomed to fall in love with the first living thing her eyes fall upon. We find it hard to resist a good teacher. The best teachers know the power they have and exercise it with great care. Absurd as I may have been in my slavish devotion, I was fortunate in its object.

Fools and asses were plentiful at Texas, as they are in academia and in the world at large. William Arrowsmith was neither a fool nor an ass but a spiritual and intellectual force that had to be reckoned with by any serious person in his class. To paraphrase Gerald Graff on Yvor Winters at Stanford, another controversial figure: A university in which everybody was an Arrowsmith would probably be unbearable. But a university without somebody who stands for the type of demands for which Arrowsmith stood is certain to be sterile.

He demanded that we approach the Greeks on their own terms. I went into the class as a tabula rasa. I had never read the Iliad or the Odyssey all the way through, and knew only what I had mislearned in a world literature class 20 years earlier, chiefly a vague notion that the Greeks were so balanced that they could walk around with books on their heads. Arrow-smith gave them to us in all their passion, their balance a delicate and hazardous feat of walking the line between the gods they wanted to be and the beasts they feared they would become.

Always, for Arrowsmith, being a man, the creature who strives, was better than being a god and precluded being a beast. If he made demands on us – pushed us to wisdom we didn’t always welcome – he pushed himself, too. My class notes are full of directions to extra meetings: Garrison I, Sun. at 7. BEB 151, 7 Tuesday. Monday at 7:30, discussion group on Heracles. He practiced what he preached. Two years before he first taught me, he had addressed the American Council on Education on just this point. The future of teaching – and the future of the race, too, he implied – depend on “Socratic teachers, visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship.” Students should want to become like their teachers. Thus the culture perpetuates itself.

“The teacher,” he went on, “is both the end and the sanction of the education he gives. This is why it is completely reasonable that a student should expect a classicist to live classically. The man who teaches Shakespeare or Homer runs the supreme risk. This is surely as it should be. Charisma in a teacher is not a mystery or nimbus of personality, but radiant exemplification to which the student contributes a correspondingly radiant hunger for becoming. What is classic and past instructs us in our potential size, offers the greatest human scale against which to measure ourselves. The teacher, like his text, is thus the mediator between past and present, present and future, and he matters because there is no human mediator but him.”

Thirteen years ago, I sat in the stacks of the library in the Tower on the UT campus, where I had gone to look up everything my teacher had written. I carefully copied those words down, feeling as I wrote them a great wash of light: So this was why I had come back to school!

I believe them as firmly now as I believed them then. Now they tell me why I teach.

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