10 January, 2011
Once more I'm picking up the baton and trying to finish this race. My head is a fog of mixed feelings.
You see, what I've done is get myself a math course at the community college. Math, specifically Calculus II, was my nemesis in my First Attempt at Big University. The math program at BU was notorious for "weeding out" the less successful engineering students (my major at the time). I came in with a strong high school math background and went right into Calculus I. I passed, but with a grade typical of that time in my life, characterized more by my family and personal dramas than the traditional college experience. I went into the next course, Calculus II, and failed miserably. Four times.
I took as many gen ed courses as I could in the meantime, and everything in my curriculum that didn't have Calc II as a prereq. After two years, I'd run out of money and, more importantly, gumption. I guess I was a pretty classic college dropout. I knew it wasn't uncommon, and I was still more accomplished than many of the people I was working with, so didn't feel too awful about it. I began to focus on building the life I had.
That part of my life is still progressing; it constitutes what has been and will be the core of my time on this Earth: personal discovery, healing, family, career. I am proud of what I have, both in the sense of who I've become (so far), and what I've managed to 'collect' along the way. My internal trophy case is admirably full for a man my age, especially in non-material accomplishments, but one shelf is almost completely empty. I've been keeping that space open for twenty years; it's time to earn something to put there.
I'm starting to get a little panicked and a lot philosophical about what it will mean to be back in school. On one hand, I'm going through the familiar embarrassment of needing to go back at all. I'm 20 years out of high school and I still haven't finished a degree. Also, the course is elementary level for the ultimate goal: a Bachelor of Science. I have five more math courses to take, and I'm not even sure taking them at community college will do any more than boost my confidence in the subject. And if Big University doesn't allow the transferred credits, I'll have to repeat the courses there before I move into core curriculum.
On the other hand, I'm excited to actually be on the path again. Some fortune cookie I had once said something like the worst false step you can take is no step at all. That the direction I've been moving for a really long time. The idleness started with discouragement, continued with a straw house of security on existing accomplishment and skill, and has since been perpetuated by fear of looking like a fool. To satisfy the people around me who try to get me moving, and also satisfy the parts of myself that know damn well they're right, I talk big, make token plans, and ultimately use whatever seems most valid at the time to excuse myself for not acting. Now, if I can get over that hump and get into a routine of progressive coursework, I may actually get myself a degree.
The prospect simultaneously excites and scares the hell out of me.
I have no idea how a degree will change things. (Well, I have some idea, professionally, but zilch in ever other aspect). I concluded a bunch of years ago that it wasn't fear of failure that held me back, but fear of success. Because success always comes at a price. I have a good (enough) thing going to live a decent, modest life as long as I don't plan too big and nothing terrible happens, like the economy crashing, and waves of nationwide unemployment for instance. The fact is, unless faced with a real threat of loss of security, making the extra effort and upsetting everyone's routines doesn't seem worth the short-term trouble, and the long-term is too far away to make sacrifices. What I concluded is that even if I woke up one morning with a (real) PhD on the wall, without having actually gone through the motions of earning it, I still would be afraid of change.
Why? I know much of it has to do with self-confidence. Much of me believes I already have more than I deserve [link], and labels my inaction as Humility. In other words, you keep to your place in life and be happy you have so much already. Other parts of me don't want to stick out, are afraid to ask for more, fear the inevitable questioning of even legitimately earned credentials. Most of the reasons are rediculous. I usually play the role of smart underachiever, a big fish in a little pond. I fear that when I move to the big pond, I'll be a pretty small fish--really nothing special at all.
I know better than to seriously believe any of these things are truth. I've been a professional for years, and done work impressive, and in some cases superior, to people around me with advanced education and experience in my field. There's nothing stopping me from making the connections necessary to move up in my career, and the older I get the more I realize I have not only the technical expertise, but also the common sense and the people skills. There's nothing stopping me except one thing.
My boss calls a degree a ticket to the dance. I've seen over and over again that this is true. Although sometimes I get a temporary guest pass, and sometimes people will step out to interact with me, it doesn't matter that I can waltz my ass off in the lobby, I'm simply not allowed in the ballroom.
I do know of one change that will happen when I finish a degree: a huge weight will be lifted off me. What kind of man will I be when I no longer live with the fear of being judged an imposter, a charlatan who pretends to have legitimate and valuable skills? What will it feel like, for a moment in my life, to feel like a success in the one way I have always felt like a failure?
I am determined to find out. On your mark...