90: Back to School

90: Back to School

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Back to School

Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.

~Betty Friedan

As I squirmed in my seat, the professor introduced herself and then looked around the room. “Before we go any further, I’d like to give each of you the chance to introduce yourself. Please tell us a little bit about yourself, including what program you are in, what you’ve been doing, and why you are pursuing a graduate education.”

It had been twenty years since I had last been in a graduate-level course. As I looked around the jam-packed classroom, I realized that most of my classmates would have been mere toddlers back then. Eyeing them, I debated what to say. Honestly, I couldn’t help wondering what they were thinking about the student who was twice their age.

When it was my turn, I over-explained:

“My name is Kathleen Plucker, and I’ve been working as a reading tutor at an elementary school in Glastonbury for the past two years. Before that, I was a kindergarten para-professional there. But I got my M.Ed. in the mid-’90s. At the time, my parents were very opposed to my teaching, so I did not pursue certification then because I felt compelled to respect their wishes. I’ve since changed my mind about that, but that’s another story.

“Anyway, because I was in graduate school when the Internet was really taking off, I ended up developing websites during graduate school and then continued to create more websites and web-based applications in both the educational and corporate worlds. I also taught classes for teachers and librarians and helped them to see ways they could integrate emerging technologies into their workplaces and jobs.

“Over time, I also did some freelance writing and subbed in my children’s schools. But I have always wanted to lead my own classroom, and my work these past few years has only increased my desire to do that. Having lost a few friends at this point, I realize that life is short, and I don’t want to die not having taught. I’m not getting any younger, so here I am. I am taking classes to obtain certification to teach kindergarten through sixth grade.”

It was a mouthful and far more than anyone else had said. But in fairness, everyone else in the room had substantially less life and professional experience on which to comment (other than the professor, who, thankfully, was older than me — but not by much). As soon as I closed my mouth, I was embarrassed by all that I had shared. And yet, it really mattered to me that these younger classmates not dismiss me as unintelligent, uneducated, or outdated — or as someone who had just been sitting around. If I were going to travel this road with them for the next two academic years, I wanted to command respect — and I wanted at least some of my life experiences to count for something in their eyes.

And so began my return to graduate school at age forty-five. I write this over twenty months later, now that my journey has nearly come full circle. Just over a week ago, I completed my student-teaching experience, and two days later, I signed a contract to serve as a long-term substitute for the last two months of the school year. In the interim, I am subbing at various grade levels, which is an interesting challenge. (High school sophomores are quite different from second-graders!) Much of my energy is devoted to securing a full-time position, though given Connecticut’s financial troubles, doing so may prove tougher than I’d hoped.

Prior to two years ago, returning to graduate school to take certification classes had seemed impossible. As the mother of two young children and as the spouse of someone who travels for work, I didn’t think I could successfully swing classes and motherhood, especially because we had no family living nearby who could help watch our children while I attended class and studied.

But as of two years ago, the kids were finally old enough (ninth and fourth grades) for me to feel more comfortable leaving them home alone occasionally while I was at class. Also, I felt that I could complete my schoolwork while they did theirs (or as they attended practices for their various activities). In other words, I no longer felt that I somehow risked shortchanging them. The downside of waiting so long, though, was that I had grown visibly older with each passing year.

During the past two years, I have learned many teaching methods and classroom-management strategies. But one of my other big takeaways has been how easily we can let our age keep us from doing what interests us.

Yes, there have been times when I have felt downright ridiculous, wondering how others perceive what I am doing at the ripe old age of forty-seven. As I walked around campus sporting my backpack, I wondered what others concluded about the woman who looked like she should be the professor, not the student. When I was completing my student teaching, introducing myself to colleagues as a student teacher always felt a little ludicrous. And being a student teacher to a host teacher who is fifteen years younger than I am was awkward at times. When I finally host my first open house, introducing myself as a first-year teacher will inevitably feel silly.

Nonetheless, I have pushed forward, motivated by my students. I am looking forward to at least twelve to fifteen years of teaching. In that time, I can positively impact hundreds of students, as well as their parents and my professional peers.

I sincerely hope that my colleagues in my certification program have learned something from me. Perhaps they have benefited from hearing about my experiences as a parent of school-aged children and as a reading tutor at an elementary school.

But I also desire that some who have witnessed my journey have taken something else from it — our age should not deter us from pursuing something that intrigues, interests, or even relentlessly nags us. I hope that other graduate students realized that they, too, can change course if they wish one day. And I hope that my own children will be reminded throughout their lives that their mother, in an effort to be true to herself, reinvented herself. For if there is one thing I do not wish to be, it is stagnant.

Throughout the past two years, I have swallowed my pride regularly, but the payoff has been life-changing and even liberating. I am finally on the cusp of doing what I wanted to do from the very beginning. No longer will I wonder, “What if?”

~Kathleen Whitman Plucker

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