May 17, 2015

How I Got Here

"The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means to an education." 

I began a few times, you know.

The first time, I was a naive 16 year old, homeschooled and working at the small apple orchard on the edge of town, bordered by cornfields and beehives. I came home from my job smelling like their apple cider doughnuts, as if I'd spritzed a cinnamon perfume on my wrists to make the five dollars and change per hour. After my regular schoolwork was done for the day, I would reach for the textbooks to my two online college courses, flipping through them while I waited for the dial-up tones to finish beeping. I took Introduction to Fiction and Basic Newswriting, figuring it would cover all the bases of my future career as a writer. My computer was beige and roughly the size of a small car.

I moved away from home at 17, however, four hours south and left, landing at the very edge of Indiana. People spoke with a twang and there were more hills there. I began a second time, and took an English class, but it was extremely expensive for a girl who left home with a $900 savings account and a '87 stick shift Honda. Instead, I worked- first at a chain restaurant as a hostess, where I faked extroversion until I could flee to the safety of my apartment, then at a doughnut shop, where I served cherry bagels and coffee in the drive through window when the sun hadn't even stretched and yawned yet.

Next was a year at a job cleaning hospital rooms. It was cheerful work when people were leaving with a cart full of flowers and balloons, and heart-wrenching when I'd be assigned the children's ward, oncology, or an ICU room where the bed hadn't been occupied long enough for a mess to be made. I cried more than once as I mopped those floors, knowing a family was grieving. It was a busy, but quiet job. After that, I worked at the same hospital as a secretary, and it felt like I had landed my first grown up position. I wore khakis, read on my lunch hour, typed on a computer, rubbed elbows with doctors, and locked up at night. When it was quiet, I wrote blog posts to myself in emails. 

That's when I began for the third time. I started off with a medical terminology class that the hospital offered (which counted as college credit). I didn't choose it for its purpose of enriching my job, although it did. I just loved all the -isms and -ologies, and was overjoyed when I'd find the particularly long words for small conditions (blepharospasm!). I decided to take a couple night classes then, driving straight from work in my khakis to a lecture hall where I'd nearly fall asleep, At first, the obvious choice was nursing- not just for my hospital job, but because my mother and 3/4 of her family are in nursing. I realized when I barely squeaked by with a C in anatomy that it probably wasn't a great idea. And anyway, during all that time of cleaning patient rooms, I found myself coming home to write about their lives rather than wonder about their medication dosages. I quit the hospital and worked at a vet for a year, but the pets had less interesting stories.

Life changed again, and at age 25, I moved back to Illinois, thank goodness. I found a job as a medical secretary again, and because the clinic offered tuition reimbursement, I took another two online courses at the college I started at years before- my fourth beginning. I met Sky during that time. I met Millie not long after.

When she was two, it suddenly occurred to me that the Pell Grant existed, and that I should use it (and I'll forever be thankful for it). I enrolled again for my first full time semester- my fifth time in school by this point- and found out I was pregnant with Walter a month later. I continued with school that year full time, even though Sky was away nearly the entire spring semester. Some of  the time, I would take my quizzes laying on one side of the couch, clutching my laptop and praying I wouldn't feel the morning sickness anymore. Once Walter was born, I took my first purposeful break from college. I wanted that first year to be free from distraction. I'm still so glad I took it.

And for the sixth time in my life, at age 30, I enrolled in full time classes again. Most of those were math, and I've never been more intimidated. I made the Dean's List, got a 4.0 my last semester, and felt like I was actually getting the hang of it. My bed became a temporary desk, and I would spread out syllabuses, textbooks, and my laptop all around me. There were countless nights of stopping in the middle of homework to soothe a crying baby or calm a little girl with a bad dream. It was exhausting, and it was hard, and it felt awful and amazing. 

On May 14th, I stopped going to school. 

This time, it was because I had finally graduated with an associate degree.

What technically began at 16 ended a few days ago. I celebrated on the rooftop, taking in the night air and posing for a few photos in my cap and gown. I wanted to wear it forever. At home, I poured a sparkly drink into a crystal flute, and felt the gratefulness sink deep into my bones. It was such a long journey- much longer than it needed to be- but I know, without a doubt, that I appreciate that little degree so much more than I would have a decade ago. It feels like I earned it, yes. But it feels like a gift, too.

I haven't learned a hundred great truths. I have not remembered the way to chart the phases of the moon, the format for writing copy for television news, or most of those words from medical terminology. But I have learned it's okay to keep going, slowly, because it gives you a kind of grit you don't find other places. Someday, I'd like to continue, and get that journalism degree I've been eyeing since I was young. Until then, I have this; the knowledge that I can accomplish something I work at, the example I hope to set for Millie and Walter, and the honor cords and tassel carefully put away. Class of 2015.

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