I’ve always felt undereducated. But never more than since moving to New York six years ago. It seems everyone I meet here has a degree or two. Not that I ask them, because I don’t - I don’t want the question turned back on me, because it always embarrasses me to have to explain that I’ve never even been to college.
When I was seventeen and fresh out of high school I left home to move into a dormitory at a hospital-based School of Nursing blocks away from the University of Alabama. This program, once I graduated and then passed eight grueling hours of State Board exams, would render me a Registered Nurse. But not a degreed nurse.
I am one of those dinosaurs known as a “diploma” graduate. A term lay people are not even familiar with. What it means is that even though University professors came to our school to teach our courses – English, Math, Sociology, Psychology and all the requisite sciences – and even though we attended classes and worked in the clinical arena 5 days a week for 11 months each year for those three years (not an easy program, either – only half the number that I started with made it to graduation), what we left with was not a degree of any sort. But, that was in 1968. And in 1968, diploma graduates were the rule, not the exception.
In the seventies diploma schools began being phased out. Aspiring nursing students then began choosing between a two year Associate’s Degree or a four year Bachelor’s Degree. One could even begin one’s career with the AD, and then later add the courses needed to complete the BS. My having graduated with only a diploma and no college credits to my name meant that a degree of any kind would require me to start as a freshman again and run the whole race.
What I always said was that if I ever did return to school, it would not be to study nursing, though it would certainly have helped advance my nursing career. What I wanted instead was to study literature and the craft of writing. As a working wife and mother, and then a single parent, it always seemed the impossible dream.
My daughter, whom I coaxed and pushed through nine fragmented years of secondary education, and who managed, finally, to walk away with a BFA, feels only half the pride I think she should for that accomplishment. If only she knew how I envy her.
As I examine my life these days, it seems to be curiously bookended, on the one side by my daughter and her somewhat nonchalant attitude about her education, but on the other by my maternal grandfather. In my first and most indelible memory of that quiet, gentle man, he is seated, thin, frail and balding, in a wicker rocker on his and my grandmother’s porch, engrossed in a Reader’s Digest.
It’s not what he was reading that fascinates my fractured memory so much as the fact that he was reading. I had no idea, as I stood watching his yellowed fingertip follow the words across the page that day, that he’d had to quit school when he was only eight to help support his ten brothers and sisters, and had taught himself everything he’d learned thereafter, including how to read.
Being jealous of the higher education everyone I know seems to have acquired should not inspire me as much as my grandfather’s determination to learn despite having had his right to even the most basic education stolen from him. But it does.
I hang around a lot of wannabe writers like myself. I am always envious when they make references to some literary detail that I’m not familiar with, even though, on my own, I’ve read and studied whatever college lit I could get my hands on over the years.
When I read the bios of accomplished (that is, published) writers, I always make note of their academic careers. It seems they all have degrees, in English, or Fine Arts, or something equally esoteric. It seems many, if not most of them are also teaching the same subjects. What, I then wonder, am I doing trying to get my foot in that door? I am not educated. I have no right.
Yet I’ve yearned to acquire that right for years. So what am I waiting for, you want to know. Well, besides what is most daunting -the cost - the whole college admission process completely intimidates me. I had to be tutored just to pass high-school algebra – how can I possibly pass a college entrance exam forty-something years after that embarrassing fact? But just to hold a degree in my hand some day, well, I think it would feel pretty amazing. And would make my grandfather proud.
Maybe it’s time to just do this thing.