by Lisa Peet
“Who is that?”
“That is … the world’s oldest living freshman, and the walking epitome of the decline of modern education.”
—Dr. Philip Barbay, Back to School
I find myself thinking of Rodney Dangerfield often these days. And just to be clear, that’s not a line I would have ever imagined myself writing before. But it’s true. Not the eye-rolling mournful schtick of “I don’t get no respect,” though—rather, I’ve been rewinding my mental tape of Back to School, the mid-’80s hit movie about a rags-to-riches tycoon who follows his teenage son to college. It’s one of those grownup comedies that were popular at the time, trying to cash in on an Animal House audience that had grown up a little, drowning in double-entendres with a liberal seasoning of slapstick and the thinnest veneer of substance. Dangerfield’s character is wealthy but uneducated, well-intentioned but crude; he’s a fish out of water in academia, and therein hangs the movie’s humor. Because hey, what’s funnier than a middle-aged schmuck at a frat party, right?
I ask myself that a lot.
In the fall of 2011, I went back to school too. I had just finished up a contract editing a small journal at a large academic library, which wasn’t as glamorous as it might sound. The library had acquired the journal’s archives, and as part of the deal our executive editor wrangled a commitment out of them to give us office space and the support to publish it for five more years. I was kind of a poker bride, a redheaded stepchild, and although I liked the work I was just as glad to get out of there when our time was up as they were to get rid of us.
I did like the librarians I worked with, though. They were a smart, funny, cynical bunch, both erudite and technologically adept. All in all, it looked like a good racket. Publishing was going through a bad patch of simultaneous upheaval and constriction, and as I fired off a series of resumes that spring I began to realize how poorly my odd little niche job had equipped me for the marketplace. This was already a second career for me, and I just wasn’t high enough up the ladder to make that elegant lateral hop. I needed a bump. And that bump, it turns out, was library school.
I can’t quite remember, now, how I reached the decision to actually do it. A friend and I used to bandy about the idea of going back to school while we walked our dogs in the morning, and then out of the blue my partner brought it up as well. I had certainly been a bookish, pro-library kind of person all my life, and as I looked around at available programs I was heartened to see that they were also highly tech-positive—a good combination for me. Life was relatively stable. My partner was both employed and supportive of the whole enterprise, my health was good and my energy high, and I already spent a good portion of my time reading and then writing about it online; how hard could grad school be? In the end, though, I think my mental process invoked a high degree of Fuck It. I’ve always been fond of taking chances, of making the grand leap when it looked good, and my hunches have played out well. I enrolled at Pratt Institute’s School of Library and Information Science, and that fall, at the age of 48, showed up with my laptop and textbooks and gray hair, ready for the grand experiment.
There was a period of adjustment, to be sure. But not a bad one. The hardest part was relearning how to read those long, dense, academic texts, if I’d ever really known in the first place; my undergrad degree was a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and I had not been the most stellar student who ever slouched, chain-smoking and hung over, in the back of a classroom. That’s right—the last time I was in school you could smoke in class. And in banks. And, God help us, in supermarkets.
And that was the other adjustment: most of the people I go to school with don’t remember when you could smoke in bars. They are 24, 28, some in their early 30s. A handful are in their 40s, but I’m consistently the oldest person in every class of mine. As it turns out, that’s not a bad thing by a long shot. True, it takes me longer to read and retain than it used to. Years of pleasure reading have spoiled me, so I’ve learned to give myself extra time, to backtrack if my mind is wandering, and also to skim when necessary—all that good reading was also close reading, and it’s been a surprisingly hard habit to break.
But if the reading required some recalibration, the writing has been nothing but a gift. Remember when blog sounded like the stupidest word ever coined? It still does, to tell the truth, but seven years of sitting down to write about something and then writing about it ends up to have been good discipline. I can coax a storyline out of just about anything—and, trust me, when a professor has 20 papers to read, she’ll grab onto a narrative thread like a drowning woman with a life preserver. I know just how long it takes me to write ten pages, how long I need for a thousand words. But mostly, I can write, period. It gives me an edge. In every class after the first batch of papers has been graded, the instructor will invariably give a little pep talk about how this is a profession that requires proficiency in the written word, and then post the writing tutor’s email on the whiteboard. If I sound like a stereotypical curmudgeon, blaming the decline of this country’s educational standards over the past 10 and 20 years, then so be it. In the meantime, I’m deeply grateful for all that sentence-mapping they drilled into us in fifth grade.
My other advantage, I’ve found—and it’s a huge one—is just knowing more. Not that I’m in any way presuming that I’m smarter than anyone, or better educated. It’s just that extra 10 or 20 years of input, of reading books and papers and following the news and generally being a good little cultural consumer, knocking around New York City for more than 30 years. At least some of it has stuck.
There, in fact, lies another major factor in my decision. The New York Times has recently run a few articles about the middle-aged back-to-school cohort. Most cite the economy, and the jobless trying to get a leg up. But at least one piece has declared it a proactive form of exercise for aging brains:
“As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses,” Dr. [Kathleen] Taylor says. “We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before—and help your brain keep developing as well.”
To be honest, that was as much a consideration as any career goals. If I’d lost both parents to early heart attacks, I’d probably be writing this piece about what it’s like to run my first marathon at nearly 50 (and I’d probably have been in bed hours ago). Instead, both of my parents developed dementia. And nothing—absolutely nothing—terrifies me more. So like the religious runner, I am fiercely disciplined and possibly over-serious. I don’t watch TV, don’t play Sudoku, don’t get into political arguments on Facebook. It’s not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with those pursuits. It’s just that I don’t have time.
I feel that way about my own perceived cerebral future, but it’s also literally true right now. To stick with the metaphor, as I close in on finishing my degree—I’ll be done at the end of this fall—I’m feeling like one of those runners who’s been training just a bit too hard: grizzled, sinewy, perpetually dehydrated. It’s not that school has proven so difficult as it is relentless. This, then, is where I feel my age. Everyone who’s been in grad school knows it’s a slog, but the longer I’m there the more slowly I bounce back. Whereas I assumed the experience would toughen me up as I went along, lately I feel it abrading me in small degrees, the nonstop grind of school and poverty and the endless tiny soul-sucking domestic tasks that somehow pile up to surprise me when it’s 1 in the morning and I thought I could go to sleep. Sometimes I’d trade a few of those years of experience for the option of going home to an imaginary mom and dad for the weekend, getting a cup of hot cocoa and a back rub and sleeping until noon. That particular Faustian deal isn’t in the cards, though, so I put my head down and keep going forward.
This sounds grimmer, perhaps, than I mean it to. There’s been a lot of real joy in my grad school experience—over the past couple of years I’ve learned all sorts of new things that fill me with pride: how to write code, conduct a reference interview, edit video, put together a lit review, give a good ten-minute PowerPoint, work on a team. I’ve read thousands of pages of theory, history, technical specs, and critique. I’ve had some very cool professors, classes that turned into graduate assistantships, internships that became paying jobs. Most of all, I have not looked silly.
In Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield spends the entire movie, up until the inevitable warmly redeeming moment, playing the fool. He’s too old, too fat, too undereducated, too uncouth for the ivied halls. That’s the whole joke, right there. And while his character is rich and dumb, whereas I am poor and smart, for a long time after I made the decision to go back to school I still had the small, quiet fear of appearing buffoonish. Of seeming desperate. Of being obviously, glaringly out of place.
That apprehension has faded, for the most part. I feel like I’ve made a place for myself there. I have a few friends; the faculty like me. Last week in a Digital Archives class we were looking at a cassette tape from 1978, and the professor was riffing on the year: “1978! That was before you all were born—that was before I was born!”
I coughed politely, and he said, “Oh, Lisa was born then. Lisa can tell us all about 1978.”
People laughed, and it was a good laugh; there was kindness and respect in it, and for some reason that little exchange cheered me. Maybe that was the version of Rodney Dangerfield I feared after all. If that’s true, then I guess I’m doing all right. I’m not quite the world’s oldest living freshman, and I’m getting some respect.
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Homepage photo credit: Lewis Wickes Hine via NYPL Digital Gallery
Back to School photo credit: © 1986 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. via IMDB
Running man photo credit: Eadweard Muybridge/Bettmann Corbis