Going Back to College

Hampshire College diplomaFor many years, I had the recurring dream that I had to go back to college — specifically Hampshire College — where I met my future husband and countless, enduring friends. Each iteration of the dream was a little different: I had the same roommate, but we had to find beds in a giant open space with dozens of others instead of being assigned rooms; the entire campus was rearranged, and I wandered anxiously attempting to find my way through a maze of buildings I used to know; I didn’t know how to sign up for classes and couldn’t find anyone to help me. The effect every time was the same: utter disorientation.

During these stressful nocturnal scenes, I would at some point ask myself, Wait. I’m married. And in my forties! We have a house, so why do I have to live on campus? Most significantly, How did I get into graduate school if I didn’t finish my undergraduate degree? But something was unfinished.

In the fall of 1991, I left Texas, where I had been born and raised, for this left-of-center, create-your-own-curriculum college in the East. I had never attended a “normal” school growing up — I’d started at a tiny montessori elementary school, bussed far from my zoned option to a fine arts middle school, and auditioned my way into the “Fame” of Houston with the overlong moniker, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Hampshire was a natural part of my educational progression.

I was grateful to be able to study poetry writing just as I’d planned, and I learned a great deal about crafting language and reading literature, but it took me years to appreciate the other fundamental things Hampshire had taught me: to ask deep questions, to find my own resources, to solve problems creatively. These skills have served me in situations everywhere I go. They make me resilient, self-disciplined, scrappy.

Last fall, I did go back to Hampshire, as a staff person in the Communications Office. There, I worked with some of the smartest, kindest, most dedicated people I’ve ever met. I made new friends quickly, just as I had in my late teens and early twenties, in a way I never had at work before. I was excited each morning to drive back to my alma mater, proudly sign my emails with my class year, and spend my time among others who felt like “my people.” We were doing excellent, successful work, and I loved my job in a way I’d never loved a job. There were indeed new buildings on campus and changes to classes, but I learned them quickly, and I felt like I’d come home.

Then things fell apart, and they fell apart fast. In the wake of historical financial uncertainty, the board and senior administration chose to seek a partner to bolster them, followed by deciding not to admit a fall class. Both on- and off-campus constituencies quickly broke into factions, and ugly infighting ensued. The only thing everyone had in common was stress. It broke my heart every day to see my college in virtual flames, especially when I wasn’t able to utilize my experience to help with communications.

It provoked me to reach out and reconnect with many of my former classmates. It provoked me to examine my values and push back against what I felt was wrong. It provoked me to look for a way out before someone else pushed me there.

Quitting that job, a position I’d wanted for so long, exactly six months after my start date, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I miss it already, less than a week after leaving again. And now, if you search “Hampshire College” online, Google serves up the third word, “closing.”

So, why did I need to go back to a place I left more than 20 years ago after experiencing the traditional, formative college mix of struggle and enlightenment, angst and joy?

Maybe to take me back to who I am, what kind of person I am deep down, to reconnect with the inquisitive, creative, writerly kid I was when I entered college and to match her up with the confident, strong-willed woman I am now. To reassure myself that I am self-sufficient, my ideas count, and I’m scrappy. And to remind me of what really matters in my life: people. Maybe it was also my last chance.

Though I am deeply sad my tenure wasn’t longer or better, and I don’t have the sense of completion I hoped for myself or my school, I have no regrets about going back to Hampshire. As a parting gift, I got myself a new diploma in my married name. A dated and signed original from 1995, it makes me feel like time warped, and as though I’ve somehow graduated again.

Plus, the recurring dreams have stopped.

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