CHAPTER 1. (Chapter 2 has been added following Chapter 1)
My sixteen year old granddaughter and I sat talking in the back seat of her parent’s car. She was taking a college prep course at Barnard College. A vague impulse came to my mind as my thoughts drifted to my lifelong wish to take a course at a prestigious university.
I wondered if my age, now 75, would hamper the ability to return to school. Would I be able to do coursework? Should this wish remain a fantasy of repeating an experience that I had enjoyed at age nineteen? When I asked my granddaughter how she would feel if I took a course there, she exclaimed, “Well, I guess so, grandma, but you can’t be in my class.”
I asked an advisor, age 90, about it. He said confidently, “Do it! Aging is terrible. It will open doors for you.” So I did.
After doing some investigation, I found that I could audit a course in the Lifelong Learner’s Program at the same school.
Registration was the first hurdle. It had to be done online, and the directions were intricate. Online navigation of security intricacies and multiple passwords reminded me of the difficulty I had in learning French in high school. It was a foreign language to me.
After many attempts, I finally gained access to student libraries for course requirements and academic papers. Setting up an email account for correspondence with teachers and other students within the university system was finally completed. Even though I hadn’t yet met a single professor or fellow student, a sketched skeleton path toward student status appeared.
I blanched upon receiving a health directive to list my vaccination history. They laughed out loud when I told them it had occurred seventy years ago.
I emailed the professor of the course, History of American Women in the 20th Century, to see if there was room for an additional auditing student.
“Dear Prof. Thompson: My name is Wendy Wilson. I have just received confirmation of my acceptance as an auditor into the School of Professional Studies. I saw the course that you are giving in the Fall, 2016 semester bulletin.
It has been my wish for years to take a course relevant to women’s studies at Barnard/ Columbia. To my happy surprise, you are giving such a course. I am a feminist personally and in my work as a psychoanalyst and author. I would hopefully request inclusion in your class.”
“Dear Wendy, Thanks for your inquiry. The course is already pretty full. I would suggest you come to class. After the first few sessions I will know if there are enough seats for auditors. As I am sure you understand, priority will be given to students taking the course for credit. Professor Thompson”
Well, maybe I’d have to bring my own chair! I was half in and half out.
I stood in line to get my student ID photo card. With a wide smile, I took a selfie for my card. The expiration date on the card read 10/01/2021. I wondered who would expire first, my student card or me.
In preparation, I asked my granddaughter how I should dress for class. She pointed to my jeans and t-shirt explaining, “Just like that, a college student”.
I thought about it and decided that I had to find attire appropriate for my age, so I bought a pair of slim slacks and a woolen jacket. I didn’t want to dress as a young adult, yet my usual professional clothes were ancient for school. That was the start of redefining myself even though I had little idea of what would come next.
When I was younger, the custom was to buy your “school clothes” in late August in preparation for the real thing. I decided that I would wear my new school jacket the first day of school.
I wanted to match the elite status of the college so I chose a jacket which was on sale that was described as ‘high end’. It had a shabby chic distressed look about the seams.
I got off the subway on the first day of the course. A young woman whispered to me, “You have your jacket on inside out.” I looked down at the front of my jacket and checked it.
I went swanning around the school grounds in my jacket. As I stood at a café drinking coffee another woman whispered, “Your jacket is inside out.” I told her in a superior way, “ This is a high end jacket. It’s supposed to look this way”. She retorted, “No, the price tags are hanging down your back”!
We had a good laugh at my predicament as I turned my jacket around and marched confidently toward my class.
I found myself as one of two older people in a class of fifty young women. The course was held in one of the old unpretentious classrooms crowded into an historic building. The room was filled with small desk and chair seats, and a video screen hung from the blackboard.
When a teacher arrived I asked the student next to me the teacher’s name. It was then that I realized that I was in the wrong room. She handed me a map to another building as I skittered out and around the campus, up elevators and down stairs. I feared there would not be room for me in my appropriate classroom.
I was told that I should have read my internal email where the change of class was noted. Why would I look for an internal email if I hadn’t met anyone yet? Navigating these changes and reconstructions challenged my resolve.
I remember starting first grade at age six, excited and scared. My mother had given me a shiny penny for good luck to hold in my hand as I went in. This time I entered empty handed, not having any idea of what to expect.
Eventually, I got into the right class and found a seat. The girls in the class were assembling. They looked serious, studious and worried. They seemed nerdy and passive, not vibrant and expansive. Both seats on either side of me remained vacant. I felt like a reserved sign had appeared over my head. Reserved for whom?
Uh oh, this wasn’t going to be an “all in together girls’ moment. ” It was an “ew…What are you doing here?” moment.
As my granddaughter had predicted the millennials were wearing flip flops, shorts and t-shirts. They were makeup free and wore tank tops looking as if they had just returned from the beach. They looked as uneasy as I felt. I tried to adjust knowing I was standing out like a sore thumb.
The professor spoke clearly in an interesting and well prepared manner about women’s historic struggle for gender equality and political justice. We learned about our responsibilities in terms of class reading and tests.
The generational difference between the students, the professor and me floated through my mind in dream-like confusion. I wondered about her age when it came to me that she was younger than I was. It disoriented me to realize that we would be hearing her lectures about events that occurred when I was in my twenties and before she was born. How could she be lecturing me about being a woman in the 20th Century? I lived the history. Shouldn’t I be lecturing the students and her about the subject?
There was another woman my age in the class. She filled me in on the specifics of auditing classes as we strolled down to the West Side market where we sampled her favorite pizza which cost $4.00 a slice and was delicious. I hoped that we would become friends.
As we talked I began to accommodate myself to the reality involved in the need to meet deadlines, adhere to travel schedules, and find appropriate parking. I used a backpack to carry books, pads, laptop, rain gear etc. All in all it was an invigorating but tedious beginning.
I thought about the young women in the class. They must have been nineteen, younger than springtime. I sensed that they had been drawn to Barnard because they wanted a place where they could be serious learners and develop personal and professional expansion. They looked hopeful about being where their goals could be nourished.
I recognized these goals as my own although I was fifty years older than the class. Age differences melted as I sat among these interested students. I absorbed their curiosity, felt the warmth of their youth, and was invigorated by their commitment. Because it was a class about the history of women’s struggles, the age difference evaporated.
As the professor continued her lecture, I felt my earlier anxieties begin to diminish and to be replaced by a feeling of personal courage and triumph.
Following the class, I cheerfully walked to the elevator. An older woman came toward me gesturing toward the gray hair we shared. Signaling a thumbs up signs as the students whooshed by, she laughed, “We have to show them how to do it.”
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Looking back, I remember walking to my class and feeling like I was carrying a stranger on my back, a very heavy big person with arms around my shoulders weighing me down. I didn’t know this person. I had to bear carrying her. Stranger, stranger, stranger. This new unfamiliar burden required all my energy with no reward in sight.
I felt as if I had become a five year old child. I had dismissed my adult self. Nothing was familiar to me, yet I had taken it on.
I felt scared and angry that I had to pretend to fit into this class. I have trouble with this charade of appearance. I had to disguise myself in artificial clothes trying to be perfect and to match something directed by requirements outside of myself. This costume had to be perfect. It wasn’t like wearing self-selected clothes that reflected my taste and identity. I couldn’t be myself.
Recently, while departing the train on the way to the course, the zipper in my coat got stuck with material from the coat. It strangled me at the throat. I imagined that I would never be able to get my coat open. Maybe I would have to use scissors to cut off the arms and neckpiece.
Instead I boldIy stopped and asked a policeman to try to undo the snag. With a serious look as if he were solving a crime, he leaned down and fought with the zipper until it loosened. An authority figure had come to the rescue.
I remembered the first day at class when I inadvertently put my jacket on inside out. Again I was acting like a child who had put her clothes on incorrectly. I got help in straightening out this situation by two people who told me the price tag for my jacket was hanging down my back, proving that the wrong side of the coat was exposed.
What was alienating me about returning to school? The students were so much younger than what I had expected. The age span of fifty years came into play. If they had been my grandchildren visiting my home, being in the family would have normalized things.
Attending this university class called for much more accommodation since we were also listening to a professor speaking about a complicated subject and struggling to take in the facts of this detailed academic course. I felt like a character in the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris”.
The film was about a hack screenwriter visiting Paris on vacation. At the stroke of midnight he was picked up in a Ford roadster and magically transported to Paris in the 1920’s where he met Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and other legends. They invited him to join their party. He became swept along in their wake and found himself plunged into the Jazz Age and all its legends. After a time he returned to present day Paris renewed by his adventure. He had internalized the beauty and talent of these legends and could begin to realistically work at actualizing his own dream. Maybe that is what I wish for as well, youth and inspiration.
The university students are studying to discover the beauty and talent of historic and academic legends. They can use these legends as models of motivation in pursuit of their own dreams.
They are housed in dormitories or apartments. It is their place. Many here are privileged, intelligent, conscientious and self-possessed. They are busy racing around as special people in a prestigious school. I feel envious that I never had and never will have what they are enjoying now. They are beginning a long road in life whereas I am beginning a similar road late in my life.
I go to class and take the part of me that is confident and intelligent and sit her carcuss in a tiny school chair, feeling like I am not really there. I am an empty mannequin, a piece of cardboard posing as if I belong, a 5 year old who can’t talk or react or take any chances.
The professor begins her lecture. A feeling of spontaneous understanding overcomes me as I hear her talk. She describes the way that women of varied race and class have been disabled by discrimination. They were disenfranchised economically and discriminated against socially. Hearing about how brave and difficult it was to upgrade the status of underprivileged women brings home a wider look at the enormous struggle involved and the courage shown by female activists. I had never put that together before. My focus as a feminist was on individual search for independence. Now I was incorporating the effect world wide.
I keep saying to myself , “Wow, now I see”. The professor is facing us from the front of the room where I sat with the other ‘kids’. As she speaks, it feel as if she is raining pieces of sweets on us, one after the other. I receive them as gifts.
But what do I do with them when I have no place here in the classroom? I think I will squirrel them away in my brain, treasuring the ownership of this prize. It overcomes me with gratitude.
I decide to think about these morsels of knowledge later and enjoy them in private. My eyelids droop into a brief spell of sleep. I am so tired. It is so hard to manage this strange lonely experience.
I am 5 years old again and can’t think at all. On a few occasions it comes to me that I can respond to what the teacher is saying. By respond I mean using my intellectual background, curiosity and imagination to inform me that it is aware of what the teacher is saying. I feel exhilarated, excited, addressed, and connected.
I make a comment in class. The professor listens for a brief minute. She then signals with her eyes that I should stop talking. I should say no more. I retreat. And I tell myself that I should be teaching the class.