As with most life-altering decisions, this one began with a lousy job. It was 1985, I was going on 42, and this was—give or take—job number twenty-something. It wasn’t the worst I’d ever had; that might have been at the shower curtain company.
But for pure tedium, the university job qualified. I was a “program administrative assistant,” meaning I typed stuff, filed stuff, and stroked the egos of the Big Wigs in the Vice Chancellors office, not one of whom had a decent sense of humor.
To break the tedium, I’d sit at my computer and, with no one the wiser, do my own writing—creative writing, personal stories, anything to keep my head from hitting the desk, whether on purpose or from boredom.
I did try finding another job, mostly in editing. One thing my two self-important bosses did manage to compliment me on was how well I improved their overwritten, jargon-laden letters, memos, and reports.
But when months passed and nothing materialized, I felt trapped, rudderless. And me with a dog, a cat, and an aging Volkswagen to support.
Then during one particularly dark night of the soul, a light suddenly clicked: Graduate school! And in English!! Hell, I loved to read.
And so it was that I was admitted to the MA program at the University of Illinois at Chicago; acquired both a student loan and a part-time clerical job; and began what I thought would be my lost years: nine wonderfully aimless quarters spent reading English literature and wandering the university library.
Such a pleasant way to stay distracted, I envisioned, while trying to figure out what I really wanted to do.
But here’s the thing about being lost: sometimes you are found. It happened to me while studying the works of the masters: Chaucer and Milton and Eliot (both T.S. & George), Austen and Auden, and especially Samuel Johnson, that crackpot 18th century writer who created the most comprehensive Dictionary of the English language in 1755, which, for this writer, is equivalent to the Bible.
But I was doubly found in my second year, when I was accepted as a teaching assistant in the university’s English department. To prepare to teach our own classes, all TAs were assigned a full-time professor to shadow, usually someone who’d taught college writing for years.
We would be required to teach some of their classes, and read and grade student papers. My mentor was the head of the composition program, and the day I taught my very first class to 21 college freshmen, he sat in the back of the room, silently observing while taking extensive notes.
When the class was over, still dazed from the experience, I went to get my things and leave. As I approached Dr. Miller, he looked up, smiled and extended his hand. And without a false note in his voice, said: “Welcome to the profession.”
I was just shy of my 45th birthday and finally launched into my real work.
Those heady days came back to me while reading the recent article, “Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life,” by Mark Miller in the New York Times.
A couple late-in-lifers are featured, but I was most taken by Robert Hevey’s story, especially since he started on his masters in plant biology at 53, following a “30-year career detour” into accounting. Detour, indeed.
He will be 66 when he finishes his Ph.D. and hopes to work in the field he’s pursuing in his studies. Oddly enough, he’s quoted as saying, “I’m certainly not going to start a new career at 66 or 67,” referring to those who complete their advanced degrees and then go into academic teaching.
But, of course, that’s exactly what Mr. Hevey is doing, although more than a new career, it sounds like he’s returning to what has fascinated him since childhood—plants.
So, as we oldsters are often fond of saying, maybe everything old really is new again.