I graduated last night. Now before you ask me which university I graduated from and what I majored in, I have a couple things to share with you… it wasn’t a university, it was a community college and my major was an Oregon Associate of Arts Transfer Degree and I’m not going to transfer.
Saying both of those things is hard for me. Really hard. And yet the power of those words and the meaning behind them is worth exploring, both for me personally and within the wider context of what it means to not to hold a BA in a country that both worships and hates education.
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. George Washington Carver
That’s just your education talking. An old saying usually uttered in rural America to anyone who has gone to college whose thoughts and ideas they disagree with.
That those two philosophies have always existed side by side in this country is like a microcosm for the divide we find ourselves currently embroiled in. Tradition vs innovation. That age old knee jerk reaction to change is almost instinctive—a biological reality to keep us safe from the unknown. This divide has existed in European culture since the Church first started persecuting scientists. It is created by the fear that learning something new will destroy the old and that fear is nurtured by the gatekeepers of the old.
And yet educational achievement is revered by so many that my lack of education was a cocklebur stuck in my sock. The shame of this lack needled me even as I published more and more books and was asked to speak at schools and teach novel writing for our community college’s community education program. This lack of education was something to be hidden, suppressed, buried beneath a ream of achievement. I lied about it on job applications, changed the subject when the inevitable “where did you graduate from?” was brought up during discussions and once, years ago, when my young son outed me during a conversation, “but mama, you said you dropped out of high school”, I wanted to die of shame and humiliation and cried about it in the bathroom later.
Very early I decided that I would rather be pretty than smart and since I felt the former wasn’t possible, I would concentrate on the latter. Of course, math was a problem and math, in the end, was one of the things that doomed my educational career. Not one teacher or administrator in my high school asked why a girl could get A’s in sociology, creative writing and psychology and yet fail general math. If they did ask that question, the answer was always because she wasn’t applying herself. So I quit. Plus, you know, it was the eighties and I wanted to party.
Flash forward several decades and several books later, I took and passed my GED test with almost perfect scores. (See Daddy, I AM smart!) Except for math. I studied and studied, took the math portion again… and passed by one point. I had my GED. But I told very few people because no one knew that I was a high school dropout. (Even now, just typing those words at my keyboard makes my stomach clench and there are people I love who will probably be pissed that I was dishonest with them.)
But as is often the case when you achieve something, the GED wasn’t enough. I realize now that I had biases against people who hold GED’s—they were the people who didn’t have what it took to stick it out in school. People who were somehow less than those who could. And I was one of them. Which is just crazy fucked up because that means that NO ONE can ever rectify a mistake they made as a teen—a mistake that hurt no one but themselves. And crazy fucked up because school isn’t and has never been a one size fits all proposition and education should be made accessible for all students and in a way that works for them. I KNOW this… yet the shame lingered.
So, in spite of being contracted by major publishers and being a success on the outside, I went back to school so I could feel like a success on the inside. I chose to start with community college because it was the most affordable and offered an online component that would work with my very busy schedule. My ambition was to get my BA and a master’s degree and teach writing at a university. I wanted to breathe in the rarefied air of higher education, sit in an office filled with books and hear the crunch of leaves as students walked the quad to another class. Yeah, I’m aware that doesn’t exist anymore but I had dreams, people! DREAMS!
But life shifted. During the very long 3.5 years I spent getting a two year degree, I was blessed with another grandchild. The world changed and activism became a part of my daily life. I got a full time job that I love and one which affords me the opportunity to make a difference in young people’s lives on a daily basis. My writing suffered because I didn’t have time.
So I started to ask myself why. Why at 54, would I want to go deeper in debt when both of my careers are fulfilling and exciting and I’m so privileged to have them? I was so conflicted that I even threw a party with some of my closest and most accomplished women friends… the wise soul’s party, where I was able to talk out my feelings about continuing my education and get sage advice in return. I knew in my heart that it had come to the point where I either had to choose to live my life or choose to get more degrees. I simply didn’t have time for both and I, better than most know how dangerous it can be to put things off. Deep down, I really want to write more books and play with my grandchildren and get more politically involved, and yet…
What I’ve come to realize is just how deeply my biases about education and success are ingrained within me. How imposter syndrome is a real thing. How afraid I am of missing out on opportunities that can only come from having that higher degree. For instance, I’ll never be asked to teach at a cool MFA program, get selected for an amazing residency or be the director of a non-profit when the only degree listed on my application is an associate’s. But why would I want those things when I’m really happy with where I’m at? Why am I always striving and pushing myself endlessly?
Quite frankly, it’s exhausting.
Last night, I graduated from Portland Community College with honors. I sat with nine hundred other people who worked damned hard to get there. While I was overcome by gratitude to be a part of it, I was also aware of a sense of shame. Shame that I ever thought less of people for whom education didn’t come easily. In that crowd of nine hundred, there were people who were older than I am. There were Dreamers who fought for that two year degree with everything they had. There were people who wheeled themselves up to the podium to receive their diplomas. When Senator Jeff Merkley asked if there were any students who were the first in their family to graduate college, hundreds of people stood. When he asked how many people were receiving their GED’s that night, dozens more people joined them. Next to me, a young man waved as his father walked by… he and his father were graduating the same night. The diversity of that group, the determination and grit of that mass of people is something you can’t find anywhere else. Not at a state college and certainly not at an Ivy League school. In addition to those of us who were receiving our associate of arts or science degrees, there were people who were graduating with certificates in welding and auto mechanics, people who achieved credentials in medical and dental assisting, web development and fire protection technology. Something dawned on me as I watched the endless line of humanity marching across the stage… these are people who now have the education to care for our children and elderly, work in our offices, fix our cars, give end of life care, help care for our pets when they’re sick, help addicts kick their habits and fly helicopter rescue missions. These are the people who will take our blood pressure, fix our infrastructure, manufacture the products we consume and police our communities.
These are the people who make our fucking world go round.
And I am so very, very proud to be one of them.
Yes, there’s sadness, but there’s always a shadow of regret when letting go of one dream to reach for another. I was accepted into three different colleges and there may always be a feeling of loss over what might have been. I’ll probably always have to fight my sense of educational inferiority, but perhaps my inner struggle is just reflective of the conflict our nation has always had concerning education. After all, we live in a country that worships at the altar of higher education while at the same time defunding schools for our children and cutting programs that allow our disabled students equal access. But I’m not going to let that conflict define me anymore and I AM letting go of the shame I feel for dropping out of high school. I will never stop learning. I will never stop achieving. My associate’s degree is enough.
I am enough.
Education is the most Powerful Weapon which can be used to change the world. Nelson Mandela