Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New Year New Life

The year 2013 was a huge year for my family. Two of our children graduated from high school and we watched them in the rear-view mirror as we pulled away from their colleges - 4 1/2 and 6 hours away from home. David graduated, finally, from college with the bachelor's degree he started working toward over 20 years ago. I started pursuing, finally, a master's degree after figuring out what my passion is. Our oldest daughter got engaged on Christmas Day, and we started realizing we are moving into the next chapter of our lives.

The thing is, we're not finished with the chapter we are on. As we look toward 2014, we have plans and goals in mind. I am now about halfway through my master's degree plan and I've realized I'm not stopping and will move right into a PhD program as soon as I'm finished with the master's. Before David finished walking across that stage in West Virginia, he already had thoughts of LSAT preparation and law school fluttering around in his head. What I find myself wondering about is this - when do we stop?

You see, I am much closer to 50 now than 45. David is two years younger than me, but still - we have three adult children. Many of our peers have grandbabies they cuddle and love. Some have purchased vacation homes, own their own businesses, and have achieved other "grown-up" milestones. Should we settle in and realize that we wasted too much of our youth? That dreams of terminal degrees and new careers are for those half our age?

To answer this question, I first turn to a memory. When I was about 10 years old, my father's aunt graduated from nursing school. She was in her 50s. I remember thinking "wow, she didn't let her oldness get to her!" I found her dedication to pursue a life dream inspiring and I referred to that memory often when I finally started my serious college education around the age of 34.

When I started college in my 30s, I had already established a life. It was a life of high-school-diploma-type clerical jobs. I had worked my way into junior management, but that is really all the farther I would have gone. What started as developing office skills as a way to earn money through college had become my life instead of college. I had two children. My first husband had started a new job that earned enough money that meant I could quit my job and, in my own words, I "jumped off that cliff". I had dreamed of meeting my high school classmates someday and having the same credentials as they have (I never will, because they have had a lot more years to establish really cool credentials after graduating from college 10 years before I even started). I delivered my third child four days before finals during my first year at a university. I didn't miss my finals. I was so determined. My second year was looking really good until the baby born in my first year was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the second semester began and I soon figured out I wouldn't be completing that semester. Still, I persisted and returned in the fall, taking a lot of "distance" courses so that I could complete them while sitting in my son's hospital room. When I graduated from college, I was close to my 39th birthday. I became a high school teacher soon after. *career 2*

As I worked through the education system as it is right now, I came to realize my passion was for correcting that system. Specifically, I wanted to turn to my science background to conduct meaningful research that would help teachers and education agencies understand the best ways to teach every student, depending on gender, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status. I knew that a master's degree in education wouldn't quite give me the background I wanted to have as a solid scientific researcher, so I am pursuing my master's degree in sociology and plan my PhD to focus on experimental, social psychology. *career 3*

Realities settle in, however, and I know my deepest joy comes from teaching. I suspect what I will really do with my PhD is be a professor. *career 4*

So the question, when do we stop, is hard to answer. Rather, I am faced with other questions - is it prudent to keep going? Should I stop? Do I need to realize it is too late for me?

My philosophies, the mantras that have literally kept me alive through deepest depressions, say that I should pursue as long as my heart and my mind are able to pursue. I can't tell you how many times I have told people "it is never too late" when I have heard them talk about how they wish they had gone to college.

I know there will be people out there who will see David and I, well into middle age, hiking across campuses to get to our night classes after our day jobs who will think we are being frivolous.

I don't think it is frivolous. It is dedicated. It is being true to ourselves, rather than to the expectations of others or of society. It is joyous. It is providing a model for our children and grandchildren that says that mistakes do not have to be permanent. It says that destinations are not nearly as important as journeys. It says that making your life happen is far more rewarding than waiting for it to happen to you.

Whether David finishes law school or I ever become a professor isn't nearly as important as the firm knowledge that we will never, ever have to wonder what would have happened if we had tried. When do we stop? When we are finished.