I CAME OF AGE IN THE LATE 1960s when Timothy Leary's siren call to "tune in, turn on and drop out" was far more alluring than the prospect of studying and taking tests. Once, on parental urging, I enrolled at the University of Illinois Circle campus in Chicago, but I never made it to a single class— not one. I think I was genuinely terrified by the amount of self-motivation and self-discipline that going to college would require. But I was also in love with my new right not to do what I was told. For years, I could not visit a college campus without getting the willies.
Then I had six kids and had neither the time nor the desire to be a student. My children became students, and when they went to college I went along by proxy. It was only this year, at age 61, that I felt grown-up and responsible enough to go back to school. Of course the fact that I'd been laid off and found myself on unemployment in the middle of a recession provided incentive too. (And the community college I attend permits folks of my vintage to matriculate tuition-free!)
So college is where I'm hiding out until the economy improves— or until Social Security kicks in. Whichever comes first. I'm working towards a certificate in the medical field, and I consider school to be my job these days. I like this job. It is challenging, diverse, and I am rewarded with a clear, non-illusive good grade when I do well instead of vagueness and disregard. In my entire working career, I never experienced such encouragement or approbation. My hope is that my time in school will give me a measure of control over possible future employment, as well as more choices on down the line. If finances would allow, I'd do this forever. But those are my long-term plans. There are so many little things about going back to school that have me charmed, not the least of which is "Show and Tell."
Not long ago I spent the day with a group of kindergarten and first grade kids. It was part of a community service course requirement and included a session of "Show and Tell"— a ritual still held in traditional circle format. Two children shared that day. First, a boy talked about his favorite book on Transformers while the teacher held up the book's pictures, page by page, for all the class to see. The other sharer was a girl who laid a turkey feather on the floor in front of her and stroked it nervously throughout her presentation. Each child brought in something important; something to which they were particularly attached; something special from their life or home; an unselfconscious sneak peek into the truth of who they are coupled with the hope of acceptance and affirmation from their peers.
I believe the need for "Show and Tell" never goes away, no matter how gray we get. Before I went back to school last fall, my opportunities for sharing were so limited I felt as if I were drying up— like an unfed stream in late summer. That first semester I was such a "Show and Tell" fool, I embarrassed myself. I whipped out pictures of my offspring at the drop of a hat. I brought in copies of ancient newspaper columns I'd written and forced them on teachers who politely took them, but will never likely read them. I carried my artwork around looking for a sly opportunity to show off my sketching abilities. I even dropped names of famous ancestors and proffered copies of scientific papers written by my son and my father. I was shameless.
Happily, I'm a little calmer this semester, though I still blurt out answers without raising my hand. I seem to have purged myself of that backlog of pent-up exhibitionism— at least for the time being. But I do wonder if all of life is nothing more than a session of "Show and Tell." There's the big-time "Show and Tell" where you write a best-selling novel, have your artwork displayed at MoMA, or invent a contemporary version of the light bulb. And then there's small-time "Show and Tell" where the group is less grand and the sharing more intimate. But the feeling that you get at the end of either is the same. I believe that that may finally be more cherished than any degree, job, or line on my resume.
And now, I'm off to class.
VIRGINIA HINCHEY is 61 years old, married and the mother of six children. She has five boys and one girl— all grown. She was born in Chicago, (raised in the suburbs), married in Berkeley, CA where her first son was born, and lived for ten years in Sacramento before moving east to Athol, MA, a true blue-collar, factory town. She and her brood have remained there for 27 years, 17 years of which she spent working as a stay-at-home mom. Once all of her children were in school, she took a job and remained employed for 17 years until she was laid off in 2007. She has just returned to school after a 40-year hiatus. She is loving it.
To learn more about Hinchey and her thoughts on life, visit her blog on SheWrites.com
(A). UP GRADE If this is your second assault on the bastion of higher education, you'll need to produce transcripts from your first foray into Academia to enroll. But keep in mind that an old GPA isn't all you have under your belt. Many colleges and universities grant credit equivalencies to older students for life and/or trade experience. If the school you plan to attend accepts them, you might also consider taking a $72-$75 College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) test. A high score may convert to money- and time-saving credits. If you've never ventured into college territory before, you'll be required to produce high school transcripts, a GED, or take an entrance exam to prove competency in specific subjects.
(B). SLAP SHOT You may wonder, given the fact that your pediatrician has been dead for 40 years and his records of your childhood immuni- zations became landfill before your second kid was born, how you'll provide evidence that you're not carrying student-endangering conta- gion. Some colleges require proof of immunization for admission, and flashing your smallpox vaccination scar won't do the trick. If you're unable to provide the needed records, you may have to be re-immunized for measles, mumps, rubella, et al. Or you may be asked to undergo seriologic titer tests that detect the presence of antigens confirming immunity. Proof of a recent Hepatitis B vaccination may also be required.
(C). DOWN LOAD Before you stock up on crayons, rulers, laptops, and other school supplies, take honest stock of your life to determine just how much time and effort you'll be able to devote to new studies. Consider all of your obligations. Do you work? Do you have pressing family responsibilities? Do you have serious health constraints? Remember that a full course load is tantamount to a full-time job— with homework. Consider taking one or two courses per grading period at first, and see how things go. You can always heap more on your plate if you've got the ability, inclination and energy.
(D). GOING THE DIS- TANCE This is one case where distance may not make the heart grow fonder. The easier it is for you to get to and from the classroom, the more likely you'll be to frequent it. Commuting by car or public trans- portation is time-consuming and tiring, and those pesky reality factors— like traffic, potholes, and road rage— can add to the stress of your new endeavor. Going local is better than going loco. Consider an institution that's close to home.
(E). PAST SINS AND FUTURE BARGAINS WITH THE DEVIL If you think Uncle Sam has forgotten that unpaid Federally-insured student loan from 1969, think again. All outstanding loans, no matter how ancient, resurface when and if you apply for financial aid. They might even disqualify you from eligibility for free tuition. Some Federal loans may have been forgiven, but to restore your potentially tarnished reputation the Feds will have to fax a letter to your school to confirm as much. Consult the financial aid officer at your college for information on how to access the status of older loans. For advice on how to handle the money end of things with more maturity this time round, check out the Today Show's 10 Tips: How to Fill Your Head with Knowledge without Draining Your Bank Account.