I don’t fully agree with George Bernard Shaw’s adage that “youth is wasted on the young,” but after taking my son, a rising high school senior, on a whirlwind tour of lovely, Northeastern liberal arts institutions of higher learning, I definitely believe that college is.
“What do you think of this place?” a dad from our Skidmore tour asked me as we kicked back on the front porch of the admissions office while our kids were inside trying to impress in their interviews.
I looked out at the relaxed landscaping of the summer-green lawn. Across the street, winding wooded paths connected classroom buildings that vibrated with the arts, dorm rooms featuring sunny window seats, and a dining hall with more food options than the Cheesecake Factory. “I don’t know about my son Phinny,” I said, “but I really want to go here.”
My new dad friend laughed and sat up straighter in his wicker chair. “Right? Me, too!”
The next day I was telling my neighbor about our grand college tour, when she cut me off. “I know!” she said. “When I took my daughter to look at Hampshire I was trying to figure out how I could apply. Same for every other school we visited.”
In the weeks since that trip, I’ve been hatching a creative idea—and after taking four, approximately 75-minute campus tours, I now know for sure that having the space to entertain creative ideas is one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. So, how about this: when the nest is finally empty, those stressed-out, burnt-out, money-strapped middle-age parents who did a decently good job of ushering their kids across the threshold to adulthood are entitled to a government-sponsored free year of college—maybe two if they make the Dean’s list.
Not convinced? Consider this: People now switch careers three or four times in their lives, and this would be the perfect opportunity to do just that, particularly for those mid-lifers who have been crying “misery” at work for years, but with college tuition bills looming, couldn’t afford to quit their jobs.
Thus, instead of continuing to do the same old thing in the workaday world then worrying over their kids each night while making their way through the frozen dinner offerings at Trader Joe’s, they could be off doing awesome college things, too: taking classes, joining a capella groups, playing competitive Quidditch, smoking pot, and enjoying three all-you-can-eat meals a day served in an intellectually stimulating communal environment. No melted cheese on cardboard like we used to eat at college in the 80s. Now they have noodle bars and vegan stations. Not only that, but dishes are done for you. Bathrooms are kept clean. Resident advisors are on call to mediate problems. No lawn to mow.
Sign. Me. Up.
The benefits of campus living are countless for a 51-year-old like me. I could get to the gym everyday by simply crossing some pretty campus quad. I could finally audition for a play, which is too prohibitively time-consuming in the regular world. I might even try to live in the French House and finally master that elusive language that I started learning four decades ago.
[More on what we will no longer do once our kids are grown here.]
And what a social boon it would be for those many single empty nesters that are unhappily alone and looking for love. No sad, empty house waiting for them every night. They’d be living on campus with thousands of other adult coeds. They’d have a built-in social life and a year of chances to hook-up at the pub and beyond. Plus they’d spend far less time one-way texting their children everyday.
Going back to college as a working parent with a household to take care of is fine, albeit challenging. I know because I’ve done it. Going back with time and resources and a (hopefully) single dorm room with a shared bathroom would be a dream. I would finally get to do an unpaid internship, edit the student newspaper, maybe even study abroad.
I teach at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell where I regularly admonish my writing students not to stumble through these years with the narrow goal of getting through and landing a job. “Don’t wish this time away,” I tell them. “Take chances. Do cool stuff. I know it’s hard and you’re broke, but life is never going to be quite this full of possibility again.”
And now I’m ready to take my own advice. I want to revisit the college scene with the maturity to stay a bit more sober, and the thirst to drink campus life to the lees. I’m talking the full immersion: body, mind and spirit. I’m talking giggling in the dorm lounge with girlfriends and pulling all-nighters with the aid of a 24/7 coffee station.
If it was fully funded, I guess the hardest part about going back to school full-time at 51 would be deciding what to study. I’ve wanted to be a television newscaster since watching Jane Pauley on the Today Show in the late 80s. At that time I had just completed my Bachelors Degree in English Literature and didn’t know I could suddenly jump back in and switch paths. I didn’t know anything then, really, which is part of the reason for this. I might also consider landscape architecture, or maybe psychology.
I would love to think my husband and I would attend the same college, but we don’t absolutely have to. We met in college at 19 and had several sexy weekends at both of our respective schools. So why not now, as long as we can take the train to see each other? Provided we both stayed off Tinder and all of the other dating apps my UMass students have taught me about, wouldn’t this be a kick for our 20-year-old marriage?
After we left Skidmore, and continued to cross New York, cruising along the Hudson, I rhapsodized to my son about the college experience. “Wherever you end up going,” I said, “you will learn and discover stuff in ways that may not be completely clear for years. Only now really, sitting in the middle of middle-age can I really see just how electric those four years were.”
My son’s reaction; a loud snore.
In fact he was still sleeping two hours later when we chugged through the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Hamilton, New York and turned left into the gates of Colgate University. It looked like Brigadoon rising magically out of the New York State mist. “Okay then,” I said, loudly enough to wake Phinny. “I’m applying here, too. I’ll never get in, but I’m still applying.”
Photo credit: Balon Greyjoy
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Sandra A. Miller’s essays and articles have appeared in over 100 publications, including Modern Bride, Spirituality & Health, and the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. One of her personal essays was turned into short film called “Wait” starring Kerry Washington. You can find out more at SandraAMiller.com.
Photo Credit: Miranda Loud