My alma mater called last week to update my contact information, and to ask for a contribution to a special scholarship fund. The whole phone conversation hadn’t lasted more than five minutes, yet I got a follow-up video email from the student I spoke with, thanking me for my donation and for taking the time to chat about my experience there. It was one of those truly rare telephone solicitations where I actually felt good afterwards. The call made me realize I’d nearly forgotten an important anniversary that was fast approaching. In May, it will be twenty-five years since I graduated. I was forty-years old before I finally finished my B.A.
Historically speaking, Kent State was where I went to college and did all those wonderful things you were compelled to do as a student in the late 60s/early 70s: drink every kind of booze that comes your way, stay up all night (most nights), smoke pot, have sex–and if there’s any time left, attend the occasional class. This is what I did at Kent for four years, enrolled as a full-time student. Plus I was immersed to the ear lobes in theatre, rehearsing, working tech and performing in no less than two shows each semester. At the end of my four-year stint, I was thirty-plus credits shy of graduation. That would have meant another full year of studies. “I’m going to be an actor,” I told my parents. “Who needs a diploma to be famous?” I left college and Ohio sans degree. But what I had in hand was the blueprint from which I would live my life for nearly the next two decades.
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is the school where adult me earned my diploma, a reward for attending classes, studying and applying myself. After weathering a series of failed careers, I fumbled my way through the transition from New York City wannabe actor to a gay Everyman of sorts, who had re-established himself in New England. In a sort of last-ditch effort, I chose to revisit my high school career plan of becoming an English teacher. All I needed to do was request my KSU transcript from fifteen years prior, apply to UMass, and finish those pesky last thirty or so credits.
My transcript arrived quickly. It was amazing to discover what I hadn’t accomplished in four years. There were courses listed I’d dropped or taken incompletes in that I hadn’t remembered ever registering for. My GPA was below 3.0–well below. I made an appointment with the Admissions office, prepared to show a serious adult face, eager to pick up the pieces, and ready this time to persevere.
The admissions officer was this attractive girl…er…young woman. If I squinted a bit, I possibly could have been her father. Handing over my transcript I began to apologize, explaining it was the Vietnam War–hippy days. “And before you ask, yes I was there then....that Kent State.” Her face registered nothing but puzzlement. “You know, the shootings.” (no reaction) Finally singing softly: “This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in O-hio.” Even my musical clue elicited no response. I was scoring zero points
She patiently informed me, in order to graduate from UMass I would need to complete at least two years of coursework there. While I began to reason it seemed only fair to get credit for all the hours I had completed at Kent, she hit me with something to the effect of “but it seems your GPA isn’t enough to admit you into any undergraduate program here.” I was certain even the young lady must have heard the loud thud my heart made as it sank to my feet.
Instead of anger, it was this feeling of total defeat overtaking me. Failure once again would conquer me–even before being given this one last chance to save my sorry ass. “There is a special program here for older students you may want to look into”, she offered hopefully. Circling a building on a map of the campus, she slide it towards me, explaining she knew little about it, but that it was worth checking out. “Older students” I muttered to myself as I got back into my car. I wondered if walkers and wheel chairs were included in each semester’s tuition fees.
It was a New England farm-house that I pulled up to, not a typical college institution at all. It was called The University Without Walls. Inside the cluttered home I was greeted by a woman my age at least. Her smile warmed me at once. I was not an OLDER student, she corrected me. I was a NON-TRADITIONAL student. My new friend explained the program over chunky pottery mugs of coffee and loads of positive reinforcement. After a good hour she sent me off with handbooks and application, assuring me we had both just found the perfect fit. I was admitted to the program for fall semester 1988.
The program proved an amazing learning experience. Each UWW student worked with a mentor who helped us choose coursework to design our own unique degree which would likewise satisfy university requirements. I was fortunate to work with not one, but two ‘guides’ who fostered me along my path. Over the following two years I studied with professors on three different campuses in courses that challenged and nourished me. In one of my first education classes we viewed the movie Educating Rita while focusing on the adult learner. Besides being an incredibly entertaining film, it uncovered parallels with my own life at the time–far beyond the classroom.
Renting a copy from the video store in my town, I must have watched it half a dozen times over that weekend. Rita was twenty-six, married and postponing starting a family against her husband’s wishes. She wanted an education in order to “find me-self first”. I was thirty-eight, partnered for ten years, seeking an education to find a fulfilling career. In the process to change herself “inside”, Rita discovers the strengths of a woman that were there all along, before she came to know the poetry of Blake or understood E. M. Forster. My own learning experience caused me to find the Matthew who’d been lost through the multiple reinventions of myself over the years. Continually fixated on the me I would show on the outside, I had neglected the one living on the inside. It happened so slowly and so silently, I hadn’t even recognized he’d gone missing.
I grew up always sensing I was different from my peers, developing an independence early on. By the time I arrived at Kent State, I’d taught myself to display a fey bravado of sorts. I didn’t care if I didn’t fit in, because I knew there were always people who might be charmed by my flair. The unique appeal, I understood, attracted an equally unique collection of personalities. Moving to New York in search of a career onstage, I was a tiny fish in a sea of bigger than life personas. I’d also signed on as a member of a highly visible gay society. I felt it necessary to ramp myself up several notches to meet this even more spectacular challenge. What I had never prepared for, though, was that point in my New York life when I would realize my actor’s dream was only a pipe dream.
It hit hard, having to admit I was either not talented enough, or worse, simply not strong enough to continue my charade. It seemed more than a lifetime that my focus had been fixated solely on theatre. As the dust settled, I understood I was still a citizen of The City I loved more than anything, and somehow it would all turn out okay. I would refashion a meaningful life here and that would somehow be enough. Soon after, I met Alejandro.
We fell in love at the right time in the right place. Even though we came from totally different cultures, we shared many of the same priorities–love of family, pride in who we were and what we wanted from life, and a need for home where we could live in peace together with our collected family of friends. A significant other had also been a part of my dream. What earthly good would any life be if there weren’t someone to share it with? I had failed miserably in the first half of my dream; I refused to fail in the second.
Shifting my focus immediately to our relationship, there was nothing more important now than ‘us together’ and ‘him’. Like me / like my partner–we were an instant duo. We shared a love for many of the same things, and we taught one another to enjoy some of our own unique flavors. But there were lots of differences and both of us had super-strong personalities. His was stronger than mine. I could stand my ground, but when it came time to caving, I was typically first to give in. Most times it was something so trivial it didn’t merit the energy of an argument.
We left The City after five years to live in the big house in Town Commons. The transition of going from a world capital to a place where the Cumberland Farms closed at 7:00 p.m. was far greater than the initial impact the move had been on our relationship. There were all those distractions and difficulties of living in a big, brassy city. In Town Commons, there was an eight-room Victorian and the two of us–the ultimate downsizing of our lives.
To say that going back to school after nearly two decades was a challenge is understatement. Add to it a forty-hour-a-week job and it becomes arduous. Still, I threw myself into it as I’d never done before, literally possessed to finish that degree. It was as though I went from having nothing to do in my life, to having no time to catch my breath. Alejandro was amazed to see me this driven–it was someone he’d never met before that he was living with now. I was so excited over something I didn’t know how to share with him, and too overwhelmed by all I was discovering to notice IT was becoming a third party in our relationship.
It was not until graduation day, as Alejandro and a small group of our friends celebrated my big moment in a favorite college town bistro, that I had time to stop and recognize what I had accomplished. I looked over at him on the other side of the table. We looked the same, acted the same, laughed at the old jokes, kidded one another like always…but somehow it wasn’t the same. There had been small signs of strangeness the last few months, but I’d been so preoccupied with finishing my last semester, I frankly hadn’t the luxury of time to worry about anything else. I began to see, like Rita, that I hadn’t been changed by my education. I had only rediscovered Matthew, who the guy on the outside–that mediocre actor–had hidden from view, even from myself.