Wednesday, August 31, 2011
I used to have vivid, difficult dreams about going back to college.
The details changed, but the plot always had to do with feeling excited about the classes I could take while also feeling troubled because I couldn't figure out what to do with my children if I went and lived in the dorms.
Into my waking life as a working journalist, what remained of the dreams was wistfulness. I knew I had not taken full advantage of college as a young person, and that I had so much to learn. I'd wonder whether the dreams were a metaphor for wanting to do something new and adventurous, or for wishing I were more intellectual.
Now I can see that the dreams were telling me simply that I wanted to go back to college. And I did.
Through a series of fortunate circumstances, I left the workaday world and became a "transfer student" at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I have to put that in quotes, because it strikes me funny that you can be considered a "transfer" student when the last time you walked the university green was in the era of big hair and shoulder pads.
My first day of classes was Monday, January 12, 2009. My first class: Drawing II. The school had generously given me credit for Drawing I based on my portfolio, which made me feel pretty good till I walked into the room with perhaps 15 teenagers and a teacher who looked like one. We set up our work areas and practiced drawing from a still life, concentrating on line, proportions, perspective and composition. We had to draw standing up unless we had a medical excuse. I silently wondered whether being ancient counted.
Where were the other nontraditional students? This was one of the many thoughts that bounced
around my head as I drew and drew and drew. I flinched as the teacher gazed at my work, occasionally offering straightforward suggestions. She was gentle, actually, though in weeks to come, when she caught me being rather vague in some spots as we drew from a nude male model, she instructed me sharply, "You're going to have to be a little more specific than that." I burst out laughing; she wasn't kidding.
But what I remember about that first day, and the weeks to come, was being reacquainted with the awkward middle-school kid who never felt like she belonged. Although I'd been to college before, my first degree was in journalism; I didn't know how to be an art student. Suddenly I had to draw and think while people watched. This was very distressing.
And then there was the obvious difference between me and the other "kids," specifically: I was literally old enough to be their mother. In a design class the first week, one of the 18-year-olds asked, point-blank, "So, are you, like ... here for the whole four years?"
"That's the idea," I told her. I was sure she was wondering, "Do you think you'll live that long?"
Truly, it was very, very difficult for me to stop obsessing about my age, and wondering how I was viewed by other students. I felt obliged to be smarter and better than they were, by sheer weight of years, yet it became clear from that first day in Drawing II that this wouldn't be the case.
I wondered all sorts of things about how to be with my new peers. Should I talk about my decades as a journalist or not mention it? Should I do the "mom" thing or attempt to sound like an extraordinarily hip fortysomething? Maybe I should just be mute.
What I hoped was that at some point, somehow, I would find my way as a student among students. I longed for a time when there would be an easiness, at least with some of them, who would understand that I knew that I couldn't be their peer, exactly, but that I didn't want to be their mother.
This week, as the first days of my second senior year in college got under way, I attended a class called Professional Practices. It's a study in preparedness for making a living as an artist. The class is required for graduation.
When I walked into Professional Practices the other night, I looked around and saw what seemed to me was practically the entire class of 2012. This is not technically true; there are lots of seniors, but far from all of them, and there were a number of juniors.
Still, there were students who I'd had Foundation-level classes with and then hadn't seen much of after we all split off into our areas of concentration as sophomores. They had all changed physically. Some had lost teenage baby fat. Some had filled out. Almost everyone had gained something of an adult face in the intervening years.
For the second time in a week, I was surprised to feel pangs of nostalgia and a sense of moment. As much work as we all have to do between now and May -- and it's tremendous -- it'll all be over in about 15 minutes. That seems to be how time functions these days.
Then I had another thought. As I found a place to sit (near Clare and Judy), and waved as others filed in, I knew I'd learned a little something. At some point when I wasn't looking, I figured out how to be an art student with other art students. I stopped worrying -- mostly -- about how I was different from the other kids. I have a little posse of friends, mostly illustrators, who come to dinner at my house once or twice a year. We've figured out how to talk to each other, and joke. If they find it tiresome where I say things like, "When I was your age ...," they graciously keep it to themselves.
Oh, and they are tremendously, ridiculously talented -- though in some ways I think we're still all trying to figure out how to be artists.
As this year of Senioritis moves forward, I will introduce you to some of them. I'll chime in with other related topics, too. I'll let you know whether, as actual college is ending, the old college dreams begin again. I bet they won't. I suspect that those dreams were trying hard to get me to where I ended up -- and that the dreams, once answered, will be content simply to be fondly remembered.