Attending the mass orientation for new graduate students, I look around with some trepidation. Will I fit in, or make any friends? Will there be others like me to find common cause with? Will I be able to handle the workload on top of my other duties? What will be my niche in this huge institution?
However, my "back to school" is a bit different from most people's. For one thing, I just turned 60. Recalling Shakespeare's "Seven Ages", I'm at once
" the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school... and the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav'd, a world too wide.."
Well, I am going willingly. And I don't absolutely need glasses yet. Things could be worse.
Oddly, I went to the same university (York in Toronto) for my BA and MA in English Literature. Unfortunately, these degrees came with little career advice, which made for a torturous path to my current profession: I am a professor in a community college, where I have been doing faculty development for several years. One of my roles is to teach new and established teachers how to improve their course outlines and techniques.
So, for me, the back to school experience is rife with ironies and echoes. Just finding my way on the old/new campus is a challenge, as many familiar buildings have been eclipsed by new construction over the 30-some years since I was last studying here. When I did my Master's, there were maybe two computers in the whole school. However, I am committed to lifelong learning, and so far the old brain is holding up well enough that I don't fear the necessary reading, discussing and writing. But tomorrow never knows: I could get hit on the head by a defunct satellite, or fall off my motorcycle into the path of a Greyhound bus.
One of the ironies is that I was a lousy learner at first. The standard teacher comment on my report cards (they seemed to pull these, like fortune-cookie stuffers, from a box of pre-set phrases) was "John is not working up to his potential." I realize now that this could have been rephrased as "We have not engaged John to his full potential." HIgh school bored me silly; I had been permitted to skip Grade Five, but they didn't allow skipping between 9 and 12, and there were no gifted classes. So I spent much in-class time doodling (cars and girls were my faves), staring out the window, more covertly eyeing girls, or reading through the whole textbook while waiting for something interesting. Wait a minute... what would happen if you divided something by zero? Shouldn't the answer be Infinity, rather than "undefined," since you can fit any number of zeros into even .0000001? I believe that little exchange inspired another trip to the office for me.
When I started college, it was 1967 and my first extended time away from my parents, so needless to say, I had intensive learning in sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll to catch up on. I remember an American friend setting his turntable in a window recess, where the setting sun would refract off vinyl grooves of the new Beatles, Hendrix or Pink Floyd album and throw wavering rainbows on the wall. And that was before we ingested anything suspicious.... (Note to law enforcement agencies: it was a long time ago, in another country, and this is fiction, you know?).
It wasn't until my third year of studies that I actually realized that a) I liked learning, about some things at least, and b) if I went to most classes, and handed assignments in on time, I could get A's. By the time I started my Masters, I was earning scholarships and could whip off a good essay in an evening. However, contact with the other English grad students (who seemed every bit as ambitious to one-up each other, impress influential faculty members and secure future employment as any class of law students) convinced me not to do a PhD in English.
My path to teaching was similarly serpentine. When a kindly high-school guidance teacher looked at my SAT scores for language abilities, he suggested I become a high-school English teacher. I laughed, sure that my destiny would be more glorious as the new Kerouac or Ginsberg, but with a little more Canadian content. Later, after various jobs in journalism and corporate communications petered out, a poet friend suggested I try his job: teaching English in a community college. "They don't make you do any research, and you can write poetry when you aren't teaching." Sounded good to me.
Now, as a new (or recycled) student starting a doctorate at 60, my concerns embrace both the issues expressed in my opening, and some new ones. Will I be able to accept what my teachers offer instead of longing to correct their grammar, teaching strategies and syllabi? Can I fit in with other students half my age, and contribute my views without sounding pompous or out of touch with current realities? Can I live with myself if I don't earn an A+ in every course? In an odd way, it's the educational equivalent of being in the sandwich generation, where we look after both our almost-adult children, and our rapidly-ageing parents. I'm new student and (supposedly) master teacher, apprentice and evaluator, Janus and Steppenwolf, all in one superannuated body. It should be an interesting term.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace