Going back to school humbling

Posted Jan. 17, 2010, at 7:20 p.m.

In the fall, my friend Aaron used this as his Facebook status: “There was a creepy old guy in my Masters class today. It was me.” I laughed for a long time about that, even as I was also in the process of applying to graduate school. Things would be different for me, I reasoned.

A few weeks later, I failed the Graduate Records Examination. This was my first reminder that it has been a long time since I did algebra. Dustin had tried to warn me before the test.

Dustin: “Don’t you think you should study for the GRE?”

Me (waving my hand at the air): “What? I’ve graduated from high school and have a bachelor’s of science. I know this stuff backwards and forwards.”

On the day of the exam, I stared at the computer screen like someone looking at a foreign language. I couldn’t even recall how to multiply fractions. Out of a possible 800 points on the math portion of the test, I scored a 220. I think they even give you 200 points just for showing up. It was the first of many humbling experiences.

Except for volunteering in my sons’ elementary school classrooms, I have not been in an academic setting in the past 11 years. The extent of my school supply shopping has been gathering Elmer’s glue, crayons, and scissors with a blunt tip. The last time I bought a textbook, searching for it on Amazon.com was not an option. There was much brushing-up to do. For a month, I carried my GRE prep books on my hip like a fourth child. I relearned everything I had forgotten in the past decade. When I retook the GRE, I brought my dismal math score up to the above-average range. I was accepted to the graduate program at the University of Maine in Orono.

To be sure, now is not the most convenient time for me to go back to school. I still have a 3-year-old at home, and my oldest son is only in the third grade. But when Military One Source announced a new Department of Defense program, Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (which, according to the Web site, “pro-vides a lifetime benefit of up to $6,000 of Financial Assistance for military spouses who are pursuing licenses, certificates, credentials or degree programs leading to employment in Portable Career Fields”), I couldn’t pass up the chance to start on my once long-term goal of earning a master’s, and then a doctorate, in mass commu-nications. The timing is not ideal, but after having three children, I now know that “good timing” is mostly irrelevant and a matter of luck. If I am ever to accomplish my own goals, outside of motherhood, I will have to snatch the opportunity from the clutches of time.

Most people are surprised to learn that I don’t already have a master’s in communications considering that I’ve been working in the field for the past 11 years. In fact, I don’t even have an undergraduate degree in communications. My writing career began almost haphazardly, and eventually I was earning positions based solely on my experience, not any verifiable credentials. I learned the ins and outs of the publishing world through my agent, editors and, mostly, by trial and error as I published two books and syndicated my newspaper column.

On the face of it, going back to school for journalism almost seems like going from Point B to Point A. But the truth is, I have a great deal to learn.

I was reminded of just how much I have to learn during my first graduate school class last week. The professional articles and theories tossed around in conversation at the classroom table were as foreign to me as that first GRE. Granted, I know many theories on writing, but most of them go something like this: “If I’m working on my column and my son starts begging for milk, I’m likely to accidentally type the words ‘milk,’ ‘not now,’ and ‘just a minute’ into the text.” And, “If the kids are yelling at each other while you are doing a live radio interview, it is probably illegal to lock them out of the house, so be ready instead to dash out the front door and sit on the front porch (even in your bathrobe). Do this in a deft, seamless fashion, and the interviewer and audience never know the difference.”

These are the kinds of things I know about mass communication, and while they have served me well thus far, I am grateful to Military One Source for this opportunity to finally learn the real stuff.

True, there was a creepy old lady in my master’s class this week. And yes, she was me. She had never heard of literary critic Walter Benjamin before, and she found doodles by a child on the pages of her notebook. She never knew that columns like hers signify the ritual-driven aspect of the newspaper industry, and she could only outsmart her younger, fully academically embedded classmates in a duel of “SpongeBob SquarePants” or “Star Wars” trivial pursuit. Still, I’m quite proud of her.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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