I started graduate school at the University of Maine two-and-a-half years ago, after Dustin came home and told me about a new program through Military OneSource that offered tuition assistance for military spouses continuing their education.

“You might as well try it,” Dustin said. “Since we’ll have help with tuition.”

And one semester later, the tuition-assistance program changed its rules. I was no longer eligible.

The problem: I was already hooked on school. Nine years as a work-at-home mom had deprived me of interests I’d almost forgotten — mainly, teaching and learning. Someone would have to drag me out of graduate school kicking and screaming.

So I stayed. And I worked as a graduate assistant teaching journalism.

I never really thought much about graduation. When I left home at 5 p.m. and shut the door on whiny children and a husband with no dinner plans, I actually looked forward to sitting in a classroom for three hours. And when I left the university after a morning of teaching or a night of classes, I’d often tell the other graduate assistants, “I’m off to my day job now.” I wasn’t joking. Going to school was the easy part, mostly because it was for me alone. Also, it didn’t involve cleaning other people’s messes, making dinner, folding clothes or packing lunch boxes.

There were, of course, many humbling aspects of graduate school along the way, the first of which was being a student 10 years after receiving my bachelor’s degree. The second: realizing I’m not much younger than my students’ parents. But in the end, my age turned out to be more of an asset than a hindrance. Which is to say, if you’re considering graduate school, the answer is, “No, you’re not too old.”

As is the case with most times in our lives, my routine at the university became quite comfortable. Everything from the smell of the stairwell to the sound of the heater was familiar to me. My car knew the way from Bangor to Orono. I had found secret parking spots.

Still, I didn’t think about graduation.

Sometimes, I brought the kids to campus. They tagged along while I checked out books in the library, paid bills at the bursar’s office (Lindell: “You have to pay to learn when you’re a grown-up?”), or attended Black Bear football and hockey games. These trips always sparked interesting observations and questions, such as the time one of my boys wanted to know if there is a fraternity for Star Wars fans. Seeing college through children’s eyes was both amusing and enlightening.

One time, while Lindell, 5, and I were having a snack in the school cafeteria, I looked around the crowded, noisy room and said, “What do you think about all these kids, Lindell?”

Lindell looked up from his cookie, glanced left, and then right, and said, “Where are the kids?”

The word “kids” is so very relative.

To be sure, stressful times also came along with graduate school. It wasn’t easy balancing a career, three children and homework. I read Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition” sitting on the bleachers at multiple Little League practices. I outlined a research paper while waiting in the school pick-up line. I wrote my master’s thesis between the hours of 5 and 9 p.m. And after Dustin left for his deployment, sometimes I cried in my office because it all felt like too much.

Now I was thinking about graduation, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it.

I pressed on.

Last week, Lindell went with me to buy my cap and gown at the university bookstore. I couldn’t understand what the past two-and-a-half years really meant to me until I put on that robe, zipped it up, and … well, felt 18 all over again. Lindell looked at my reflection in the mirror and said, “You’ll be the prettiest graduater I’ve ever seen.”

Previously, I had thought about skipping the graduation ceremony.
However, when I saw the wonder in Lindell’s eyes that day, I knew attendance was the right decision. For five semesters, I divided my energy and focus between my family, my work and my education. I missed family dinners, soccer and baseball games and bedtime stories. Graduation would be the formal, tangible closure my kids needed.

The night after I bought the cap and gown (See, Lindell, grown-ups pay to learn and to graduate), I spent a lot of time thinking about Dustin. A journey that began with his casual prompting — “you might as well” — was ending in his absence. My biggest fan would miss graduation.

Yet I suspect Dustin will have plenty more ceremonies to attend in the future. In fact, just last night, when I asked Lindell what he wants to be when he grows up, he said, without hesitation, “A University of Maine Black Bear, of course.”

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 www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.