I’m a writer. I can’t help it. It’s a life-long compulsion. I wrote a few plays, then went back to school at 30 to study journalism at Ryerson. I figured it would be a good way to make a living as a writer. It had to be more lucrative then being a playwright. I discovered that it almost is. I’ve been an editor and a magazine writer ever since, but more recently, I stumbled into teaching and found that I love it. Who knew the daughter of an English teacher would have a knack for convincing 19-year-olds that the semi colon is not dead; mortally injured, perhaps, but not quite dead. I’ve been a sessional instructor at Ryerson for a few years now, teaching copy editing and fact checking to journalism students. And I thought, hey — why not see if there is some sort of a future in teaching on a more permanent basis? And for that, I require the basics— an M.A. at least. So, I needed to go to graduate school.
John Irving, one of my favourite authors, coined the term gradual student in The World According to Garp. Garp’s son refers to them as gradual students, and Garp figures it’s a pretty accurate description since it’s where you go to gradually learn you don’t want to be a student anymore. I have thought of them as gradual students ever since, just as I think of an undertow as an Under Toad – another Garp Irvingism.
I turn 45 in exactly one month. Becoming a gradual student at my age is a somewhat daunting prospect. I felt old going back to school at 30. I wasn’t. I was an idiot. Now, my fast-twitch muscles are in a state of atrophy. My brain cells are dying at an alarming rate. My students look pained when I can’t negotiate the technological finer points of the smarmily-named Smartboard and end up muttering incoherent curses under my breath while they give up and turn back to Facebook. I am, in other words, fast becoming an old fart. Gradual School has to happen now or never. So I applied last year to U of T’s masters in history program. I like history. I have an honours degree in it from Queen’s. I’m the only person I know who has actually read all six volumes of Churchill’s version of WWII. It seemed logical. U of T did not concur.
That depressed me. I was at home last winter, not teaching, or doing much of anything – writing included, while nursing a stress fracture in my hip and generally feeling useless and pathetic when the U of T rejection came. I called them for more abuse. What, exactly, I wondered, was lacking in my application? Well, for one thing, I studied history an awfully long time ago, they said. (I graduated in 1990).
“Oh,” I said. “And what,exactly, has changed in history?” I thought it was pretty funny. But U of T apparently has no sense of humour. Perhaps, if I took some courses, I could re-apply next year. Perhaps U of T could go to hell, is what I thought. Then I sulked some more. Gradually, my hip got better, I got a few writing gigs, was nominated for a few magazine awards, was set to teach in both fall and winter terms, and life started to look better again. This Christmas, I was busy applying to York, McMaster and Brock’s M.A. history programs. I figured I could swing part time study, teach, and still do some writing. Then York called in February. How considerate, I thought, when I saw it was York calling, that they are bothering to let me know I left something critical out of my application.
Would I consider coming to York on a full-time basis?
Because that way they could give me a scholarship.
I almost dropped the phone. And so I shall, at the age of 45, be a full-time gradual student in the post gradual history program at York University. Starting now, as I choose my courses and slog through readings because I am such a god-awfully slow reader, I’ll try to keep you entertained with stories of the Gradual Student – a writer goes back to school at 45.