Back to School at 44

It’s bring-your-own drink happy hour at The Schooner III. I don’t want to go. The sun is setting over Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand. The Atlantic Ocean turns silver. After one semester of graduate school, all of this is balm to my wounds.

“They can’t wait to see you,” my mother says, pouring a glass of wine.

The “snowbirds” — retirees who trade north for south every winter — await on the second floor. My parents have been part of this migration for 10 years.

“But they’re all so – ” I begin.

“What?” my mothers asks.

“Old,” I almost say. But then I remember.

Usually, I’m the old one. At 44, I could be the mother of everyone in the first-year master of journalism class at Ryerson.

That explains the crow’s feet and greying temples. That explains why I’ve never heard of Gilmore Girls, or Shia LaBeouf, or Settlers of Catan. When you say, “I’m dying,” I think 911. When you write “idk,” I think spelling mistake. But, when students turning 25 say how weird it feels, I get it, because my eldest niece turned 25 this year. I can think back to changing her diapers, but now sit drinking pints at the Ram in the Rye with classmates her age, as though none of this is unusual.

It is unusual. Forty-four-year-old women don’t usually go back to school. They’re usually in some phase of child-rearing, or corporate-ladder climbing, or, book publishing. They’re buying summer homes on the East Coast and having affairs with baristas. I know this because my friends are doing such things. When one of them comes to visit, she wants to eat at Terroni and take a taxi to get there. I can barely afford a falafel and a subway token. Being a student means being broke. I once considered this character-building, but now it’s just depressing.

In the United States, universities provide a network of support groups for older students, such as the Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education. Ryerson offers the Mature Student Association. The word mature — defined by the university as 21 — makes me think of scotch or cheddar. There’s the aged, and then there’s the extra-aged.

Luckily, I’ve had some experience in the “non-traditional” department. I chose a path of travel fresh out of high school. For years I immersed myself in cultures that I didn’t fit into. In villages throughout the world, I’ve had my blond hair stroked, my freckles mocked. I’ve been the only woman in a logging camp and the only English-speaker in a 100-kilometre radius.

When I applied to the MJ program, age was the last thing on my mind. My main concern was to end the torture of making beds at Copper Beech Housea friend’s B&B I’d agreed to manage.

But a subtler form of torture awaited. At first, it was the comments from teachers: “None of you would have been born yet,” or “Newsrooms love young people like you, or “That was long before your time.” Let it go, I thought; these are good teachers just trying to connect. On occasion, I raised my hand to say: “I remember that.” But the comments didn’t stop. Had journalism become the domain of the young? The National Post‘s advertisement for summer interns read “recruiting young journalists.”

And then came the guest speaker. “I’d love to meet your plastic surgeon,” he said when I revealed my age. When I correctly answered a [simple] question, he added: “You’re not just old, you’re smart.” I laughed nervously. Let it go, I thought.

But I couldn’t. I went to the bathroom. I examined the beginnings of a turkey neck in the mirror. I was old. It was true. I didn’t belong here.

“Check Facebook,” someone said upon my return. My classmates’ annoying habit of perusing social media during lectures had been utilized to burn the guest lecturer live at the stake.

Ryerson has a policy to protect people like me from discrimination and feeling “less legitimate.” But there’s nothing like a group of 20-somethings armed with iPhones to enforce this. Since starting the program, my classmates have invited me for Thai food, cocktails, and karaoke. They’ve welcomed me to their generation with open arms. Ageist commentary (including that in my own mind) just can’t compete.

I think of them at snowbird happy hour as 79-year-old Betty from upstate New York raises her glass. It’s a toast to youth, to me.

As we clink glasses, it becomes clear age is just another construct slated for demolition.

Featured image by Ankit Singh