Monday, April 11, 2005

Lost in Academia

Recently a lovely spring morning found me sitting inside a classroom at a local college. It was a Saturday and I should have been sipping fat free latte at Barnes and Noble or planting pansies. But nooooo. . . . there I was, old woman on campus, listening to the wise words of the academics: academics with MFAs in poetry or creative writing, academics as adjunct professors, academics as Department Heads.
I looked around and wondered, “WTF am I doing here? I’m JUST A NURSE.” Actually I’m a nurse who’s also a writer. My profession pays a salary that allows me to live as independently as a 57-year-old single woman can live in this country and this economy. If it wasn’t for nursing, I may not have the “grist” for the “mill” of my writing.
But I longed to be a member of the heady elitist class that I was visiting that Saturday morning – the longing going back more than forty years. Unable to go to college at 18, I chose nursing school; three years fulltime education plus room and board for $500 was a bargain in 1965. So my educational fate had been sealed early on in my life.
Oh, I had ventured into ivy-covered halls off and on in the last forty years – taking a class here and there. But eventually I decided that getting my BS in Nursing would cost too much in time and money – I was already making more than any newly graduated Bachelor’s-prepared RN.
So just why WAS I there on campus that lovely Saturday morning? I was there ostensibly because it was a writers’ conference. Actually I was there to support a good friend who happens to be a member of Academia and to hear a popular Irish-born storyteller, the speaker at the luncheon.
I attended three workshops and discovered that I was one of the oldest attendees. I was also one of the few, maybe the only one, who did not have (or at least working towards) a college degree. I was beginning to feel like the clichéd fish out of water. That was until the luncheon.
That was when Malachy McCourt addressed the august assembly of college-types. Multi-published and widely popular speaker, humorist and modern folklorist, McCourt made no bones about his complete and utter lack of formal education. Finally I could relate to someone on that campus – the keynote speaker. I listened to his stories with rapt attention. At the end of his speech, he decided to “finish with a song.” With a clear voice he began the old Scottish ballad, “Wild Mountain Thyme.” It was soon apparent that there were only three people in the room who knew the words: my friend, Juilene, Malachy and a nurse in the back of the room.
Later, when I presented a book to McCourt and asked him to sign it to my daughter, he said, “And you – you knew all the words.”
I wanted to tell him that he had made me feel less like a “fish out of water” on a college campus, but I didn’t. There were others waiting for a signing. But I felt his words were like a bond, a connection, from one under-educated but intelligent writer to another.


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