It has been fifteen years since I strolled across the stage in Union University’s chapel, shook Dr. Dockery’s hand, and officially ended my college career. Then began fifteen years of life experience–some of it hard, some of it triumphant, some self-inflicted, and some not. For fifteen years I have been figuring things out. And while many riddles remain unsolved, there is one thing that I knew it was time to do: go back to school. The time was ripe for pursuing that master’s degree that I had long claimed to want.
Returning to school was an adjustment in some unexpected ways. Having always enjoyed that setting, I thought that I would slide back into it with ease. But here is the thing–I am not who I was fifteen years ago. No one is. We are ever changing–tastes, styles, likes, dislikes, views, routines, relationships, underwear–and often imperceptibly. Age, alone, brings about changes. It was naive to think that I would transition so easily. In our late teens and early twenties, we are kids who think that we are adults. In my late thirties, I have no such illusions–the kid years are long gone. By the way, college kids have not changed. They still wear ridiculous hats and pajamas to class; they still stay up all night “studying”; they still sneak around and smoke cigarettes (they have to sneak at Belmont, as the campus is smoke-free). The smell of identity-searching fills the air. Conversely, my dress is fairly conservative, I have a wife and a two-year-old, I go to bed by ten, and I gave up smoking years ago. Every night on campus (graduate classes are mostly all at night), I am aware that my peers and I are in the minority. There is much less leisure for us. Whereas the undergraduate may spend the hours between classes hanging out in the dorm or the student center or at Bongo Java across the street, having animated, idealistic discussions about the subjects on which they are now experts, I am navigating a toddler drop-off with my wife on the other side of town in rush hour traffic or arranging to be late for work so I can turn in a paper in hard copy, which my teachers unscrupulously demand, despite the age of email in which we live. These are not complaints, however. Let me emphasize that. These are merely illustrations showing how the rules of the game have changed on this second go-around. I am thrilled to be back in school, but the logistics of making it happen have become much more of a balancing act. That said, semester’s end brings an elation like I never felt as an undergrad. There is more reading and writing in one graduate English class than in a full course load at the undergraduate level (at least it feels that way). A completed semester feels like an enormous accomplishment.
There was a point near the end of the most recent semester when I finally felt like a part of the school, integrated into the body of learners, professors, and buildings. Walking to class from the parking garage, passing between two lines of fiery red maples, it finally hit me. It had taken two semesters to sink in, but I now felt like a student. Of course, I had known I was a student since summer–my student account attests to that–but I did not feel like one. For much of those first two semesters, it felt like I was pretending to be a student, reading and writing a lot in the early morning hours and showing up once a week on campus with a backpack. It was like a very aware dream. So much time had been spent in frustration over a job that had grown tedious that the thought of pursuing something different seemed forever out of reach. But it was, and is, happening.
Speaking of that job, it has taught me something very valuable. It has taught me how to work when I do not feel like working. After an inspiration-sapping shift, when the easy chair calls most vehemently, an inner voice reminds me that the schoolwork has to get done. It just has to! Thankfully, it is a rewarding endeavor. Never have I regretted sitting down to my assignments. As discipline triumphs over lethargy–a battle fought often–the academic effort becomes increasingly satisfying. And there is something else that will be satisfying: commencement. The day will come when I will stroll across a different stage and shake a different hand. That will be its own kind of elation.