A Backward Glance At The Inside Of The Cage

A friend of mine is struggling with her last year of grad school. Another friend just finished grad school and finally gets to move back “home” to the city she wants to live in, where her boyfriend has been most of the time she’s been in school six hours away. I graduated (undergrad) in May, and I feel like I’m still recovering.

Because it’s different when you’re an adult and you decide to go back to school. I wouldn’t know anything about the straight-from-high-school approach because I didn’t take it, but I do know that it felt harder for me to keep up with my schoolwork than the other students in my classes (who were 21, 22, and mostly living on campus). Not because I worked slower, or had difficulty with the material, but because I had a life outside of Emerson College.

This is not to say I had a social life–far from it. But I did have a full-time job, without which I’d have been on the street. And I had big-kid bills to pay, and responsibilities my classmates won’t know for years. For a whole year, my father was sick with liver disease, with no one else to care for him, and it was my responsibility to make sure he was taking proper care of himself. Then he passed away and my world shattered. Two years later I returned to school with a chip on my shoulder, determined to finish but not sure how I was going to manage.

“I’ve been here for five years and I’m a transfer student,” I remember thinking to myself. My classmates talked endlessly about the student magazines they worked on, the improv clubs they performed with, the advanced photography classes they had time to take. I went to work, then sat up reading and typing furiously all night, all the time wishing I had the time (or the money) to take another photography class, or join a magazine. I didn’t even know who the president of my class was.

Somehow, I did it. I even did it well, graduating with honors that I hadn’t expected. And the sigh of relief as I walked across that stage to collect my degree was so heavy that it propelled me straight out of Boston the next day, not to return.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t just feel harder to go to school when you’re older, it actually IS harder. Those layers of clarity and self-awareness that classmates envied in my personal essays aren’t born of any innate brilliance, they’re born of experience and age and hardship. And the reason I may have seemed bitter and dismissive every time the fun parts of Emerson were mentioned wasn’t because I didn’t approve, it’s because I was jealous. And the reason I ran away from Boston the moment I had the chance is because I missed my friends. I missed my life. Because school was such an all-consuming thing that between it and having to support myself (which most undergrads, at least at my school, do not) I had no time even to have lunch with my niece, who lived in the same city.

So this one’s for all those “non-traditional” students (that’s the code-word for “old,” or “poor,” or both). Congratulations for making it this far, however far you’ve gotten. And know that when you’re finished, it will be not only a relief, but an incredible accomplishment; worth much more than the comparable educations of kids whose parents are paying for them to have enough time to do homework, play sports and join clubs.

And Zoe: Don’t give up no matter how hard it gets. It’s only a year, and it will be over faster than you could have imagined. The thing that helped me the most was looking forward to what I was going to have freedom to do afterwards: travel, write for my own reasons, take pictures, make art. Live a little bit in the future, and the present won’t be as overwhelming.

Daydream. It gets you through.

And for all you kids taking the more traditional approach: Appreciate the time, appreciate the opportunity, and most importantly, appreciate your parents for providing it for you. Oh yeah, and next time you think about complaining? Get a job.

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~ by saltgirlspeaks on 10 October, 2010.

One Response to “A Backward Glance At The Inside Of The Cage”

  1. You are sooooooo awesome Martha. I’m touched you thought to include me in your blog. It’s amazing how much everything you said in this rang true for me. It is so difficult to be around all these kids and maintain your dignity–I do it at work too, since I work at Trader Joe’s which is mostly comprised of 20-somethings working their way through schools and living at home. My degree, while it is a graduate program, requires as many, if not more undergrad classes as it does grad classes, so my experience mirrors yours to a tee. Congratulations on your degree and on making it through. Lol, daydreaming is what gets me through too. ❤

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