by Caroline Reeder
“Here are your tests back,” my professor sighed. “I’m pretty disappointed. Most of you did poorly, although we did have a 95…” Ugh, here we go again. Suddenly high school flashes before my eyes–bad grades, failed efforts, humiliation–all culminating with me giving up and dropping out of school at sixteen. “Reeder!”” I want to dive under my desk. Do I really have to look? Please God, just let me get some of the questions right! It’s my first semester of college and I’m hoping to at least muddle through. I’ve never done very well in school but I’m giving it another try. I feel like I’ve missed out on so many things. I want to learn. I want more out of life. But I dread facing the number circled in red on my test.
I haven’t made a very big deal about starting college. To me it’s just another thing that I’m starting, like a new job — nothing momentous about it. I’m a little apprehensive but no more than I would be on the first day of anything. I probably subconsciously thought I was going to fail again, so why get excited? My boyfriend is much more geared up about it than I am. “Wow, my sweetie is starting college today! Are you excited? Do you want me to pack your lunch?,” he gushes. My sister Ann called the night before to talk about it as well. It’s not like college is my first post-high school educational experience though. I’d already completed a two-year certificate program at a technical school, but clearly college was a much bigger deal to my loved ones. The difference I later found was that while technical school opened the door to a job, college opened doors to the world and a new life.
Looking back, I was a relatively young returning student but I had crammed a great deal of “life experience” into my twenty-three years. I’d dropped out of high school, supported myself from the age of sixteen and moved out to live on my own after my eighteenth birthday. I felt positively ancient compared to my classmates. And I was lost. Although my family valued education, college was an alien concept to me. I’d hated school for as long as I could remember so my parents never broached the subject of higher education. They were more concerned with just getting me through high school. My dad also ingrained in my head that they
couldn’t afford to pay for college anyway so I would have to do it on my own. My mom was too weary after raising two hippies, a boy with muscular dystrophy, and a punk rocker (me) to make a fuss about anything. I was left to my own devices to figure things out. Meeting my husband, who had just graduated with a Master’s degree, was a turning point in realizing that college might be a good idea. Still I had no idea how I would pay for it or whether I would fail miserably like I had so many times before.
My first week of college was a study in wild mood swings; from one moment to the next I was anxious, excited, terrified and enthralled. One morning I was so nervous that I nearly became sick to my stomach while waiting at a stop light on the way to campus. I somehow made it to school intact but then I misunderstood the professor’s instructions about where the class would meet the next day. I showed up at room 205 ready for class only to find out that it was his office not our new classroom.
I was scared to raise my hand even when I was sure I knew the answer to the question posed. Many other interesting incidents occurred as the week went by but my fear began to lessen. Somehow I got through that first week and then six more years of higher education.
I started out as an art major at Miami Dade Community College. Miami Dade turned out to be my salvation. Miami Dade, now known as Miami Dade College, had two features that set it apart from other colleges: an “open door” policy and affordable tuition. As an open door college, anyone with a high school diploma, or in my case a GED, had to be accepted. I was also able to afford to take two or three classes a semester thanks to the lower tuition. After my second semester, I found out that I qualified for an academic scholarship based on my grades. The catch was that I would have to enroll in the Honors Program, a major leap for a person who had once feigned chicken pox and a host of other illnesses to avoid school. My “college is no big deal” attitude was giving way to feelings of fear and trepidation. College was one thing but an Honors Program? How could I possibly make it out alive? Not only were my classmates young, they were also very smart. Still, financial need quashed any fears I had; the scholarship covered all of my tuition and fees. Miami-Dade had enough faith in me to cover my tuition, I just had to find the faith to believe in myself.
When I was in grade school, I expected knowledge to miraculously enter my brain without any effort on my part. I waited until the last minute to study for tests and inevitably woke up in a panic realizing that I’d fallen asleep in the middle of the first page. For me “applying myself” involved reciting chapters into a tape recorder and playing them back as I drifted off to sleep. The results were not good; I attended summer school just about every year for a second try at the classes I had failed. So imagine my surprise when my history professor handed me back the test with a “95” circled in red. What? I’m the 95? If I had been standing I surely would have fallen smack on the cold linoleum from shock. This has got to be a fluke I thought. I was doomed to failure, right? With weak knees, I made my way to my next class, still in disbelief. Another test was returned and I got another good
grade. How can it be that the girl who spent her summers repeating failed classes is now getting straight A’s? I had clearly been given a second chance.
One of the most important lessons I learned was that age and maturity can do wonders for college success. If had gone to college straight out of high school, I probably would have failed. Instead, I started college after I had lived a little and was serious about dedicating the time necessary to succeed in college. For my first test, I read the assigned chapters and reviewed my notes. I studied and emorized the lessons. I was prepared for that test and wonder of wonders it paid off.
I found that hard work and a desire to learn were the key ingredients to succeeding. I spent many nights and weekends foregoing fun and relaxation to study, and my boyfriend became accustomed to watching TV while I worked on my algebra homework. I also missed a lot of sleep. But I wanted and needed that college degree so lost sleep and lost weekends were a small price to pay.
My life has changed in so many ways since graduating from college. More than anything else, it has given me confidence to try new things. I figure that if a math-o-phobe like me can get A’s in algebra, there are no boundaries to what I can do. And it may sound like the oldest cliché in the book but if I can do it, you can too.
Do not let your past, or for that matter the present, stop you. Even though I knew deep inside that I was capable and smart, the messages I received from misguided teachers and others prevented me from trying. Sure, you may feel downright clueless at times, that’s normal. Just remember lots of other people are just as lost and scared as you are. You may not become rich or famous but the new experiences you will have and the sense of pride and accomplishment you will gain will be priceless. Minutes, hours, days and years will pass…why not spend them changing your life with a college degree?
Caroline Reeder is a writer, artist, and musician, and works as a development officer for a public library system. She lives in a 1920s bungalow in Houston, Texas with her husband Jose, and their cat-children Friskers and Oreo.