My Secret Life as a Pilferer of Education

Sharing to back up my claim of having taught myself a few things, including reading music and some mediocre piano achievements.

I’ve been living a secret life for most of a decade. In early November, I completed an eight-year-long personal journey, one I undertook largely on the sly. I felt shy about sharing my goal because I needed all of my energy for the work. I had none left over for explanations, justifications, or talking myself out of believing any potential naysayers. There’s a lot of backstory to this, so here goes.

Immediately after high school, I got two years of college – an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts, 64 credit hours — under my belt, while working part-time jobs. But I was in debt and broke. I mean, I had to choose between tampons and toothpaste level of broke. I had no car, no bicycle, and sometimes no bus fare. I simply couldn’t finance any more higher education at the time. So I stopped temporarily. I went to work at an office job with the idea of returning to school after I’d had the chance to save some money. I held a picture in my mind of myself in cap and gown, walking across a stage to receive my bachelor’s degree. It was always a part of The Plan.

Life kept thwarting my return. But every time I was stymied, I’d summon the image of myself graduating and know I was still working toward it. My mantra became, “This is a setback, not an end.” That went on for decades.

At one time, when I lived in Kansas City and The Plan hadn’t been put off for all that long, I applied to UMKC and was accepted as a transfer student, with a major in anthropology. My dream was happening, or so I thought. I had an enrollment date on my calendar and had met with the financial aid office. But the day before I was set to become official, I encountered an unexpected “road closed” sign on my path. The details of what happened are no longer important, but suffice to say it was a plan-derailing event, something that threw up a spiked wall between me and college enrollment.

I spent a while falling apart, and then regrouped. I went back to the UMKC campus, this time to the employment office, to pick up some job applications and get a list of openings. I would go to work there, was my plan, and get my tuition paid as an employee. Before this could happen, my spouse got a job offer in Columbia, which was a good thing. So we moved.

We got settled here, had a couple of kids, got busy. Every once in a while, I checked on what it would take to enroll at a school in my new hometown, but never could see how it would work at the moment. My new plan was to get my education ball rolling again once the kids were in school all day. I saw some other moms who were pursuing higher education. But I couldn’t help noticing the ones who were most successful at it had lots of help, a robust support system. Grandparents who could babysit frequently. Somewhere to take the kids when they were sick and couldn’t go to daycare. My extended family were all far away. I had wonderful friends, but you can only call on friends so much.

I want to say right here, I absolutely am glad I had both of my children. I can’t imagine the world without them. I would not trade them in on any other dream. I just thought I could have kids and also have my other dream, in some fashion.

When my youngest was in kindergarten, I got a shelving job at the public library. Things were falling into place. This was the first step toward my new career. I would have an advantage when I got to library school, after finishing my four-year degree. (An aside: it is ridiculous that Library and Information Science is not offered as a four-year degree itself. If you disagree, I am happy to fight.)

Each time I received a paycheck, I took a few dollars and put it in an envelope – the seed of my college fund. But more things happened, of course. Cars and appliances broke down. Both of my children ended up with expensive-to-fix dental injuries on the school playground.  My younger one had a major health issue that resulted in large medical bills. I was also saving a few dollars from each check toward my children attending college someday. As their bank accounts were sacred in my eyes, it was always my envelope that got emptied. Then I’d start over again.

Every time I considered returning to school, there was some reason why the time was not right. I always needed to wait. I see now I was too easily discouraged, too willing to believe negative voices, whether internal or external. But finally, I looked at the year and at my age, and thought, “Now or never, baby. No matter my level of external support, no matter my own self doubts, I need to do this now.”

It was 2011. At work, I had long since moved from shelving to public services. My kids both were teenagers. They could stay home alone for periods of time, prepare their own food, ride their bicycles to school in good weather. Surely, they could adapt. Due to time and money constraints, I might have to stick to one or two classes at a time, but I was ready to slog. 

A little voice of doubt made itself heard in my mind, though. It had been so long, I wasn’t sure I could do college work anymore. What if I tried and failed? It was around this time that several universities began posting class lectures and syllabi online with free access for anyone who wanted to audit. Aha! I could do a trial run to see if I was up to it. 

I signed on for a Modern Poetry course through Yale University. They imposed no requirements, but I did. I “showed up” for class three days a week and completed every assignment in the time frame originally set for in-class students. I did every reading, wrote every paper. I looked forward to the homework, enjoying every bit of it. I learned a lot and I did keep up.

I began the application process at the University of Missouri, Columbia, changing my desired major from anthropology to English, hoping to avoid any requirement for fieldwork. To ward off jinxes, I told almost no one.

I’d made it to the step of ordering my old college transcripts when I received a call about my mother. She had fallen, possibly had pneumonia, and was in the hospital. I was a midlife baby, so I never had young parents. My mom had become old and frail. My oldest sister had been providing diligent care in her home, but Mom’s needs were overwhelming. She required skilled nursing care around the clock. The only facility in their area was subpar. I quickly agreed to look for a place for her in Columbia. I didn’t send for my transcripts.

The next four years of my life kept me so busy, I practically met myself coming and going. Crises popped up as fast as I could knock them back. I was hanging by my fingernails, what with the intensity and constant demands of raising teens, one of whom left high school to spend time homeschooling and one of whom had a 504 ADA plan with the school district, requiring constant meetings and monitoring. Along with my parenting duties, I had the demands of being responsible for my mom’s well-being – care plan meetings, visiting three or four times a week, going to all of her medical appointments, making sure she had denture powder and enough socks, doing the paperwork and making the phone calls for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. It was like having a second job.

Let me say about my mother pretty much the same thing I said earlier about my children. I am glad I was able to bring her to live near me for her final few years. It was a treasure to spend the time with her and see her so often. I absolutely would do it again, given the same choices. But it did slam the door on my college aspirations.

I kept telling myself to be happy with everything else I had done and accomplished, to let The Plan go. Yet, I couldn’t. I tried to think of ways to revive it, while speaking of it even less than before. When I did mention the idea, the same people who urged me to wait and put it off because my young children needed me were suddenly all like “What? At your age? It’s way too late.”

At a family gathering, two relatives engaged in a staged conversation in my presence. They didn’t mention me, but only other hypothetical people of about my age who talked about going back to college.* The two of them agreed and reinforced each other’s points about how selfish it would be and how little sense it would make to spend that kind of money on college when you were middle aged already.

Pivotal paragraph alert:

I had changed, though. Instead of shutting me down as it had in the past, that kind of interaction fired me up. I thought a lot about the Modern Poetry class I had taken and realized how many resources had become available that were inexpensive or free. I might not walk across a stage or get a piece of paper at the end of it, but I could still put myself through college. Since I was homeschooling my oldest kid for a couple of years. I could homeschool myself, too.

I researched majors once again, determining what degree requirements were feasible for me to meet, considering my circumstances and available resources. Many schools offered a degree in General Studies and/or Liberal Arts. The requirements appeared nearly identical for the two, and it was continuation of what I’d already done in school. Third time a charm – I designed a course of study that would fulfill the listed requirements for this bachelor’s degree at a few different places. Then I started the long, but happy grind, one class at a time.

It would be a mammoth undertaking, but I was determined not to cut corners or cheat. If I did, I would be cheating only myself. Since I’d already done the Modern Poetry course, I gave myself credit for it on my transcript. Though I didn’t always hold myself to the same time schedule I had in that course, I did hold myself to the same finishing standards. If I took a course, I had to do all of the work and do it as well as I could. No skipping even a single assignment.

I needed some college level math, so one of my early subjects was College Algebra, which I did through ALEKS. It wasn’t completely free, but it was pretty affordable. They require you to show mastery of a lesson before you can go on to the next one. I went back to online Yale and took a Theory of Literature class, again attending every lecture, doing every reading, and writing every paper. Through my public library (also my employer), I had free access to many online continuing education classes. Universal Class was one option for these. I studied a few subjects there – film studies, geography and others. They all required papers and quizzes to get a certificate. I knew they did not go as in-depth or require as much as a full-semester college course, so I personalized, beefing them up with supplement readings and projects of my own. And at the end of each Universal Class course, I would add only a single credit hour to my spreadsheet because I didn’t want to pad. I wanted to do the real work.

Both of my kids unwittingly provided opportunities for me. My younger son had taken piano for several years, but gave it up for other pursuits when he was around 15. I had all of his old lesson books, including one titled “Practical Theory, a Self-Instruction Music Theory Course.” I had always wanted a better understanding of music. I worked my way through his books for a music appreciation elective credit. If any one subject came close to kicking my ass, it was this one. But I taught myself to read music passably and have soared to mediocre heights on the piano.

My oldest started attending community college. As he adjusted to the demands of higher education the first semester, he requested my help with studying and organizing for one class in particular, an American History class. While earning my AA degree, I’d taken world history classes, but no American History. Here were some new credit hours I could accrue. Since I was helping my son keep track of assignments, I knew what they all were. When he wasn’t using his textbook, I read it cover to cover. And wrote all of the papers — mine, not his.

I used whatever slivers of time I could find to focus on my schoolwork. During the early years, I spent a lot of time in a parked van one place or another, waiting to pick up a kid from school or other activity. I took advantage of those moments to study. I also studied on lunch breaks. I took work with me when I visited my mom, who was prone to drifting into naps. I stayed up late at night finishing assignments and got too little sleep, just like a “real” college student. My house became very dusty.

All of that work, effort, striving. Yet I couldn’t share it with much of anyone. We all have blind spots. I’ve had some of my own revealed to me over the years. One of the most common blind spots I notice in others is the tendency to judge people based on the degrees they have or haven’t earned. There’s somehow a common idea that if you didn’t pay someone for your knowledge, then it’s not real. It’s supposed to be a commodity that you bought in a college or university. If you got it any other way, it’s illegitimate, pilfered even. You stole that knowledge. You shouldn’t get any credit for it or be allowed to use it. Or, if it didn’t cost a fortune, it must be a lesser quality of knowledge.

I wanted to be able to talk about my pursuits, to enthuse, to express the joy I felt. To explain the reason I didn’t or couldn’t do something else with my time was because I had to finish writing a paper for a class. I worked with some younger colleagues who were still in school. I’d stand by while they spoke of the demands and the joys and the new knowledge attained in their studies. I wanted that conversation with someone. But I knew if I ever said anything, it’s not the conversation I would get.

A handful of times, the fact that I was taking some class arose organically. But I spoke without getting into the layers of what it meant in my life. After a while, I became cagier about even casual mentions. Because here was a typical interaction.

I was talking to someone who spent a lot of money for her knowledge back in the day. I’ve seen her mentor younger folks and heard her express respect for how many of them managed to juggle school and work. It’s very possible that she herself had more life responsibilities than I realized. But from what I knew of her at the time, it didn’t seem she had many. She had a full-time job and a husband, and that was about it. To me, it was a dream. Imagine all I could accomplish and do in the same situation!

I, on the other hand, was barely sleeping due to everything on my plate. I was in the midst of dealing with extremely difficult teen stuff, including some health issues with both kids, always needing to drive someone somewhere, or taking one of them out for practice driving hours, or helping with homework, or mediating disputes. I was working my day job, spending many hours per week on my mom’s needs, groceries, cooking, etc. Yet somehow, I still managed to have a class going at almost all times.

Anyway, the conversation — I casually mentioned an interesting fact I had just learned in an online class. I was enthusiastic about this bit of knowledge and thought we could have a discussion about it. But after I mentioned the course I was taking, here’s the turn things took instead.

In a martyred, wistful tone (possibly exaggerated in my memory), she said, “Maybe someday I’ll have enough free time to do things like that, taking a class just for fun.

It took me a beat to respond because I had to swallow a “fuck you” instead of letting it out. I’m generally a laugh instead of cry person, so I chuckled at her obvious joke, and told her, “It’s the one thing I do for myself. It’s so important, when almost every second of my life involves taking care of other people, to wedge in one small thing for me. It’s what keeps me from burning out on the thousand other responsibilities I have.”  Which was really a long-winded, more socially acceptable form of “fuck you.”

For the record, I’ve forgiven her, even if she never had a clue she needed forgiveness. But lesson learned. If I had been paying someone else in a formal program to give me the information, it would garner admiration. Because I was constructing the road for the educational journey myself, my efforts were seen as the frivolous activities of someone without serious responsibilities who had too much time on her hands. I stayed mum after that…

With one significant exception. I took the risk of sharing my plan with some close mom friends who showed understanding and support. I had believed the only cheerleader I needed was myself, but their words sure bolstered me.

I persevered through my mother’s end of life, my two children reaching legal adulthood, kid number two moving away, followed shortly by kid number one moving away only to return a few weeks later, then kid two returning in a few more weeks. And eventually, my firstborn launching again. Me taking on a second job, a side hustle doing online transcription. Two vehicles getting totaled. Innumerable home repairs. Always, no matter what, I kept my studies near the top of my list of priorities. It was slow going at times, but I plugged away.

These last couple of years, I was down to simply electives. In February 2019, I did the math and realized I needed only three more credit hours. I’d just wrapped up a fiction editing course and was trying to choose my next topic when a copy of The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare dropped into my life for free. By “dropped into my life,” I mean I skimmed it off of the top of a box of books in a recycling bin on the loading dock at work, but whatever. I can interpret the signs how I want.

For my last and final subject, I would design my own course. I gave myself the assignment to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, also watching performances of them when possible, streaming online or on DVD. I would also write a page about each one. For a few, I found Great Courses lectures that were illuminating, as well. About two-thirds of the way through, I wondered why I hadn’t limited it to one category. Why didn’t I stick to only Shakespeare’s comedies or his tragedies? On the other hand, how many people can say they’ve read every last one of his plays? Nose to the grindstone, it took me nine months for this last class.

One day on my lunch break, I sat in the coffee shop of Lucky’s Market and wrote my final paper. I dotted in the last period and looked up, stunned. I had persisted and crossed the finish line. The world around me looked the same, people going about their mundane tasks. But in my spirit, it was all trumpets and confetti.

Some arrive at the destination by paved road. I came through the briars. The snags in my clothes, the scratches on my legs – those are my honors cords. I created my own maps for the journey, gathering knowledge in a basket I wove myself.

I started with one online class in 2011. And on Wednesday, November 6, 2019, at 1:35 in the afternoon, in a grocery store, I graduated from my own private, one-person university.

~


*It’s possible they really were talking in hypotheticals, but it felt directed toward me at the time, maybe because it jibed with my some of my own worst internal fears and doubts.