Robotham - Back To School

As His Contemporaries Are Planning For Retirement, This Writer Finds Himself Starting All Over Again

Back To School

Last summer, when my son Sam was preparing to go off to college, I told him I might join him. “We could take over three or four adjacent dorm rooms,” I suggested, “knock down the walls and create a huge party suite.”

He immediately got the reference to Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. (What can I say? I brought him up right.) 

The absurdity of that fantasy notwithstanding, I was serious about going back to college. I’d been thinking about it for several years, ever since I’d left my job as editor of a local magazine and had started teaching at Old Dominion University. I was motivated in part by a desire for better teaching credentials. Although I have a master’s degree in American studies from a fairly prestigious university and several decades of relevant professional experience, the powers that be in academia favor people with Ph.D.s or MFAs. I briefly reconsidered going for a Ph.D. but quickly rejected the idea for the same reason that I’d decided against it right after I got my master’s. I didn’t want to labor for years in some obscure area of research, then write a 400-page dissertation with a title like Puritan Otherness: Proto-sexual Subtexts and Gender Identities in the Early Poetry of Anne Bradstreet.

I decided instead to go for a master of fine arts in creative writing at ODU, figuring it would not only beef up my credentials but force me to write a new book. (That, in essence, is the thesis requirement.)

But I had other motivations as well.

I’ve always loved college campuses, so much so that my vacations have tended to include visits to great universities. The year after I graduated from college myself, for example, a friend and I went to England. We saw all the typical tourist sites—The Tower of London, Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. But the highlight of my trip was a visit to Oxford. A year later, when I decided to go to California to meet an old friend, I made side trips to the campuses of Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA. And of course, whenever I’m in Boston, I make a point of tooling around Harvard. OK, I admit it—I’m a bit of a nerd. So be it.

There’s something about being surrounded by great halls of learning and students sitting on lawns or in coffeehouses discussing great literature, art, music, history and the timeless problems of philosophy.

But there was a minor hitch. Last summer I reached the ripe age of 55. “Aren’t you a little old to be going back to school and thinking about a new career?” a friend commented one night when I told him of my plans. “I’m only four years older than you are, and I’m already thinking about retirement.”

I laughed, telling him the concept of retirement was foreign to me. But the truth is, the realization that I would be attending school with classmates only slightly older than my children did give me pause. I imagined fellow students looking at me curiously, then whispering, Who’s the old guy? After all, even when I went back to graduate school in my early 30s I was 10 or 12 years older than most of the students.

Even that made me feel a little out of place.

Nevertheless, I quickly shrugged that off. And so, in the fall of 2011, I walked on campus one night and assumed the role of student for the first time in 20 years.

To date, no one seems to have given my age a second thought. Or if they have, they’ve kept it to themselves. It helps that one of my classmates is even older than I am. Most are considerably younger—some half my age. But I’ve become good friends with several of them, and when we’re chatting before class or grabbing a few pints afterward, they’re simply fellow students; they feel like peers to me.

One of the most stimulating classes I’'ve taken so far is The American Novel Since 1920. Among the works we’'ve read is The Great Gatsby. —A book I hadn’t looked at since I was an undergraduate. I had forgotten how lush and poetic Fitzgerald’s writing is. When I got to the final page, I read this passage, a meditation on what early settlers must have thought when they first caught site of the New World: “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Damn, I thought. I want to write sentences like that.

This, indeed, is the bottom line. I have become a grad student once again because I need the constant intellectual inspiration, no less than I need food, water and air. It is such inspiration that keeps us young—or keeps me young, at any rate. I learned that lesson from my father. While he never went back to school in midlife, he remained a lifelong student at heart.

In 2005, when he was reaching the end of his days, his body shriveled and half paralyzed by Parkinson’s disease, he still got up every morning and set about writing and researching topics of interest to him on the Internet.

Awareness of my age does still give me pause, purely for practical reasons. I’ll probably be at least 60 before I get my degree because I can’t manage teaching a full load and going to school full time.

At the moment I’m teaching four classes and taking two—quite enough intellectual stimulation, thank you.

But most days I manage to shrug off that concern as well. What matters to me is that I’m doing what I love--teaching, studying, writing and conversing about the things that give my life meaning: the power of language and the beauty of ideas. Had I pursued the road not taken—a career in corporate communications, let’s say—I, too, could be thinking about retirement. I could be contemplating a life in some condo somewhere, just off a fairway leading to hole 18. But that was never an option for me. The thought of such a life is about as appealing as the prospect of spending eternity in Dante’s ninth circle of hell.

Sometimes I also regret that I didn’t start this process earlier. But if I’d done so, I would have missed out on the experiences I’ve had as a professional journalist. In any event, the past cannot be undone. There is only the present and what we choose to do with it. The future, as Jesus says in the Gospels, will take care of itself.


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