My first semester back at school after a sixteen-year hiatus is rapidly coming to a close, and, as you may expect, I've learned a lot. It's not just book-learnin', either - the education I'm receiving extends beyond academia and into the realm of self-awareness.
I imagine I'll have a lot more to add to this list eventually, but for now, here are a few things I've learned about myself as a 36-year-old college freshperson. (Yes, freshperson. My spellcheck is telling me I just made this word up, and I'm quite comfortable with that. Screw antiquated patriarchal heteronormative language.)
1. I have the right to advocate for my education by asking questions in class.
On the third day of my math class, I experienced a sinking feeling in my stomach: I was officially lost. The professor had been explaining some algorithm or other, and the more he spoke, the less I understood. A familiar feeling of panic set in, and my inner critic began whispering in my ear. See? I knew you weren't smart enough to handle this. You're terrible at math, and you always will be. You don't belong here. No way are you going to graduate - who are you kidding? Just drop out now and save yourself the trouble...
And then, I heard myself, and I realized I had a choice. I could either obey the voice and decide once again - this time for good - that I was incapable of getting my degree...or I could do things differently this time around.
So I did something new.
I put up my hand, and I said, "I'm having trouble understanding this. Can you review the last step again?"
No one laughed at me. No one leered at my obvious stupidity. No one acted even mildly inconvenienced. Instead, the professor happily obliged my request - and within just a few minutes, I was rewarded with a working knowledge of the material.
It may sound silly - and honestly, it is - but I realized that, my first time in college, I'd never done that. I remember sitting in my biology lecture, feeling lost at sea and hopelessly adrift, and also never understanding that I had the right to ask for clarification. I thought that if I raised my hand and asked a question, everyone would see that I was a dummy who didn't belong in college. So I never raised my hand. I never advocated for my education by asking questions. And because I was lost a good portion of the time, I took it to mean that I wasn't smart enough.
So, my friends, I am happy to report that I have begun living by the thoroughly radical notion that I am allowed to speak up on behalf of myself and my goals, ask questions, and seek help when I need it. Should this be mind-blowing? No. But is it? HELL YES.
2. My perfectionism is bullshit.
For the record, I already knew this. But my time in school so far has peeled even more layers back, revealing depths to my perfectionism that even I hadn't realized were there.
I had a goal when I started this semester. I didn't share this goal with anyone, because deep down I knew it was ridiculous. I also knew the people who love me wouldn't be shy about telling me that it was indeed ridiculous, and I didn't want to hear it. The goal: be a perfect student. And when I say perfect, I mean that quite literally. I wanted to score 100% on all my assignments and have a final grade of 100% in all my classes at the end of the term.
Like I said: ridiculous. I knew it - and still, after all the work I've done to recover from my self-destructive perfectionism, something inside me was a tad bit obsessed with meeting this objective. (When I saw that I got a 97% on the first paper I wrote, my first reaction was to feel seriously disappointed in myself, which should tell you all you need to know about my relationship with perfectionism.)
Being a student again has been forcing me to challenge my perfectionist tendencies in really uncomfortable ways. This topic alone could be a whole post of its own, so I'll spare you the gory details and just share the highlight reel:
There was the time I panicked because I thought I had turned in the first assignment for my comp class but actually hadn't because I was still figuring out the virtual submission system.
There was the time I almost cried because I realized, upon arriving to class, that I'd read the wrong pages from the book and would probably get thrown out of class for being unprepared.
There was the time I curled into a ball on the floor of my office and wept like a maligned Victorian spinster because I couldn't figure out one problem on my math homework after almost two hours of attempting to solve it.
There was the time I had a full-fledged scream-sobbing panic attack when the submission system glitched out and stopped the timer on a test I was taking a full hour early so that I was unable to complete it.
Are we seeing a theme, here? (Tl;dr: when I don't perform my academic duties flawlessly, I freak the fuck out.)
There have been improvements, though! A couple weeks ago, I found myself growing increasingly stressed during a difficult math exam, running scenarios in my head and trying to calculate the likelihood of getting an A in the class if I bombed the test. Instead of falling down that old familiar panic-chasm, though, I stopped, took a deep breath, and gave myself permission to get a C on the test. It felt a lot easier once I'd worked through the anxiety, and I finished the rest of it without a hitch. And you know what? I got a 100% - probably because I was able to get out of my own damn way.
My crowning achievement thus far in my battle against perfectionism happened just last week. I'd been completely overwhelmed all week - hitting the books by 8:00 am and working until midnight five days in a row. I had a paper due on Friday, and while scrambling to finish it that night, I realized, with dawning horror, that I wouldn't be able to have it done by the deadline. My heart sank, my stomach churned, I felt sick, and I started to panic...and then, I took another one of those deep breaths and made the decision to give myself some grace. The deadline came and went...and I went to bed. I finished the paper in the morning and submitted it a day late for a lower grade - and not once did I use the situation as evidence of my inherent incapability as a human being! I call that a win.
3. Literally everything is better when you stop caring about what other people think of you.
So, I already knew this, too - it's just that I hadn't applied this knowledge in the context of school. But really...it's the truest kind of truth there is. I look around at all the young people in my classes - eighteen, nineteen, twenty years of age - and I can see their insecurity. It's like something tangible wrapped around them, a cloak of shame, and they all think they're the only one wearing it. It's identical to the one I wore when I was a student here sixteen years ago. I spent so much time worrying about what other people thought about me. Are these jeans the right brand? Does my butt look big? Do I walk funny? What if there's a party this weekend and everyone on campus has been invited except for me, and they're all gathering with the express purpose of laughing about what a loser I am? And on and on and on, ad nauseum: a running narrative in my head that took up more mental and emotional bandwidth than my actual studies - which were, you know, the whole reason I was there.
Nowadays? I enter a lecture hall before class starts, big butt-a-bouncing as I trot enthusiastically to my front-row seat in my Mom-jeans and some kind of radical leftist politically-themed t-shirt layered underneath an open flannel, without a scrap of makeup or any sort of regard for how my hair looks. Meanwhile, my female classmates file in, hugging the walls self-consciously, their body language an apology for the space they take up, the struggle between please-like-me eagerness and too-cool-for-school aloofness written on their carefully-made-up faces, their hands awkwardly twirling their trendily-styled hair. I feel sorry for them. I look at them and think, I used to be you. I used to think it mattered what I wore or how I looked or whether people thought I was cool. And I promise you...none of it matters. Screw what anyone else thinks. Work on your relationship with yourself, instead - after that, the rest will fall into place.
I know, too, that if I ever said anything like this to any of them, they probably wouldn't believe me, because I'm old and I have a big butt and I wear Mom jeans and what the hell do I know, anyway? (I say this with a sincere lack of resentment; I reacted in this exact manner when I was their age and anyone older than 22 tried to give me life advice. I don't fault young people for this - it's a rite of passage and something to be expected. I wouldn't have believed me, either.)
4. Most of my professors are really, really cool people.
Early on in the semester, the professor from one of my virtual classes made a Star Wars-related joke. It was really funny, and I cracked up. But when I looked at the tiny little squares on the Zoom screen that I would come to know as my classmates...I saw I was the only one laughing. Barely anyone even smiled. This has become the norm as the months have worn on: he says something really damn funny, I laugh, and everyone else remains entirely stoic. I find this interesting because I can absolutely remember a time when I wouldn't have laughed, either. Back then, I was so determined to believe that any adult in any position of authority over me was lame-sauce, simply on account of them being older than I was and, therefore, dreadfully uncool.
As a thirty-something student, however, I can appreciate something that I wasn't able to before: my professors are people. Real, live people, with families and relationships and goals and dreams and struggles and good days and bad days. When I was a student all those years ago, I didn't see my professors in any kind of context outside of the classroom; I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that they in fact lived in their respective lecture halls and slept behind the podiums at night. Now that I'm relatively the same age as my professors, though, the power differential has shifted. They still have authority over my grades, of course, but that authority no longer defines them in my eyes. Given my age, I have more in common with them than I do with most of my classmates. And I'm finding that I actually really like them and could totally see myself being friends with them.
Turns out professors aren't big scary mean dictators who take pleasure in doling out Fs and routinely assign pop quizzes just so they can watch everyone sweat. They're just...people, doing a job. Who would have thought??
5. The university system wants me to succeed.
When I was a student at the age of twenty, I imagined an adversarial relationship between me and the powers that be. Much like the way I saw my professors, the university as a whole loomed over me like a big boss in the final level of a really hard video game, lurking menacingly on the road between me and my degree like a fairy-tale bridge troll, demanding blood, sweat, tears, tens of thousands of dollars, and my very soul. If I was lucky, I'd make it past the swinging of their hammers and come out on the other side alive and (mostly) intact.
When I first started tossing around the notion of going back to school, I had a conversation with a good friend, who had also returned to school in her thirties and recently received her Master's degree. I expressed my concern about being able to keep up with schoolwork, especially given my significant struggles with depression over the last couple years, and in response, she told me something that blew my mind.
"They want you to succeed, you know. They want people to graduate. And from my experience, they're really great at providing support, however you need it, in order to make that happen."
I was stunned. "That's literally never occurred to me," I told her.
"That's because the vast majority of workplaces are the exact opposite," she replied. "Those of us who've been in the workforce have grown used to not receiving that kind of support. Capitalism doesn't care about our mental health - it cares about how much we can produce. It was a shock for me, too, to realize I wasn't on my own anymore, and that I was actually part of a system that cared about my success and my well-being."
Now that I've got three-quarters of a semester under my belt, I can verify that this is entirely correct. I've received so much support already: mental health advocacy from the Student Disability Center (who are on standby to require assignment extensions for me from my professors, should my depression cause me to fall behind), counseling sessions with a trauma therapist, an LGBT support group, multiple meetings with advisors, office hours with professors when I've struggled with course material, and even an experience with a gracious and accommodating employee from Parking Services, who bent over backwards to help me appeal a parking citation I'd received in error. In each of these situations, I've gone in with a low-lying assumption that I'd have to fight my way through barriers in order to advocate for myself...but the school has made it so easy.
I feel genuinely supported here. I feel like I matter, and like my goals and dreams matter. And it's truly a beautiful thing.