23: Jumping Fences

23: Jumping Fences

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Jumping Fences

Fear is the highest fence.

~Dudley Nichols

I’m good at making excuses. I came up with a new one every time the idea of returning to college presented itself.

I had enrolled at Tennessee Tech right out of high school. I stayed a year and didn’t do well, probably because deciding what to wear took priority over preparing for class.

As the years passed, I regretted not finishing my English degree and pursuing a career as a writer. I comforted myself with excuses — I’m planning my wedding. I have three little ones who need me at home. I’m busy with the children’s school activities. I work full-time. I can’t go back to school at the age of fifty. Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.

The truth was that I was just plain scared to go back to school. What if I needed remedial courses? What if I walked into a classroom and there was nowhere to sit? What if an 18-wheeler blew me off the interstate? What if my phone rang during class? What if I tripped and fell? What if a professor called attention to me? What if I stood out in a sea of young faces?

After my children finished college, they insisted it was my turn. I called Dalton State College and set up a time to take the Compass Test to see if I needed remedial courses.

A few days later, I pulled onto the interstate and pointed my red Honda towards Dalton, Georgia. The phone in the cupholder rang. Rachel, my middle child, was calling from her home in Los Angeles. When I revealed my destination, I heard the pride in her voice. “Oh, Mama, are you driving on the interstate?”

That was all it took. Hot tears tumbled down my cheeks as she spoke words of encouragement to me. Two hours later, I called her with the news. “I scored 99 on the English/Writing portion of the test and 96 on the Reading.”

“Great! How about the Math section?”

“Um, 13. I’ll need not one but two remedial courses to prepare for Algebra.” But I didn’t care. After decades of excuses, I’d finally thrown my leg over the high fence of fear. I couldn’t wait to register for classes.

My first course was U.S. History. I’ve never been good with dates, but the professor calmed my jitters. “I don’t care about dates, but I expect you to know the names of significant individuals. For instance, who was the first person to set foot on the moon?”

“Neil Armstrong,” chorused several students.

“Does anyone know when that event took place?”

The professor didn’t expect anyone to know the answer, but I did. Since it might be the only question I could answer all semester, I sheepishly raised my hand.

He peered over his half-glasses. “You know when Armstrong walked on the moon?”

I nodded. “July 20, 1969.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

In a near-whisper, I explained. “The landing took place on my husband’s fifteenth birthday. He mentions it every chance he gets.”

“I bet you don’t know any other significant dates.”

“No, sir. None.”

At home that evening, I told my husband, “The first night in class and I drove the professor to profanity!”

Other fears turned into reality. I walked into rooms with no seats available, my phone rang during a class, and once I fell outside the library in front of a crowd. As with the history class, none of them proved fatal. The trucks didn’t get a chance to blow me off the interstate, because a friend told me how to get to the college on back roads. And, after surviving two grueling remedial math courses, I passed Algebra with a big, fat, beautiful B.

As for my fear of standing out in a sea of young faces, I’d forgotten all about it until I met Delores. She entered the Southern Women Writers class with a rolling book bag and stopped at my table. “Hey, you look like me,” she said.

Delores wore her steel-gray hair cropped close to her head. Even though she was at least ten years older than me, I looked more like her than I did the other students. She suggested we meet for coffee and “join forces against these young folks.”

Just then, my friend Leah was laughing at Elisabeth’s latest tale about her rowdy children. Jessi tossed her head to show off her Batman earrings. Adela adjusted her Middle Eastern head covering and Brent eased down the aisle with his walking cane.

I had worried my age made me too different. An outsider. Me against them. Instead, the students — each with his or her own distinctions — welcomed me to their lunch table, “friended” me on Facebook, and collaborated on class projects. Each one, from Delores with her steel-gray curls to Jessi with her superhero earrings, brought unique perspectives about the world to classroom discussions and something of value to my life.

Thanks to those unexpected friendships, I decided to walk across the stage to receive my Bachelor’s degree rather than having my diploma mailed to me. Hundreds would be watching, but I wasn’t self-conscious about my differences anymore. Besides, I’d already experienced most of my fears. What else could happen?

Sporting a black robe and balancing a mortarboard on my head, I marched into the auditorium to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.” As I filed down the row behind Jay, a budding screenwriter with a dapper goatee, something didn’t look quite right. I compared the graduates to the number of chairs and sucked in a breath. We were a chair short. I’d be left standing at the end of the row.

Just then, Jay turned and whispered, “Arlene, I don’t think there are enough chairs. Here’s the plan. You’ll step past me and take mine. I’ll squat at the end of the row until I can get someone’s attention for another chair. It’s going to be fine.”

And it was.

~Arlene Ledbetter

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