Jennifer Cheyne. GraduationOn Graduation Day at Berkeley.

We’ve followed Jennifer Cheyne’s journey for two years—ever since she wrote to ask if we’d be interested in her story. At 49, Jennifer was about to enter UC Berkeley as an undergraduate. Her impractical dream: living life as a Parisienne.  Her meditations—gentle, rueful, wry—have given us glimpses of the pleasures and difficulties of being a “mature student”; that is, of switching gears in midlife. —Ed.  

It’s a funny new year, this one.  Usually the New Year is all about what’s next, but this year I have barely caught my breath from what has just concluded. I walked out of my last undergraduate class at UC Berkeley a couple of weeks ago, aged 51. Even overlooking my very late start, it seemed to take me forever to get through school. Friends asked me several times, “So when are you done with all this?”  It took so long because at first I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go in school, or in life, and then I couldn’t seem to leave without hitting the maximum credit limit.  Indecision and enthusiasm led to a double-major in Psychology and French, plus a minor in Creative Writing.  Most students take about 32 classes during their undergraduate careers.  I took 61.  Absurd, isn’t it?  Sixty-one professors, 61 syllabi, 61 textbooks, 61 reams of homework.  Yet it seems like yesterday that I wrote to Women’s Voices for Change to see if they’d be interested in a piece about a mature student just arrived as a junior at the UC Berkeley campus.  That was two years ago; I was 49.  Practically a child.

One may well ask what I learned in all those classes.  Mostly, the frantically crammed information flew right out of my head as a haggard version of myself left the classroom after each final.  I got through this whole school business inelegantly, to say the least.  Besides late nights and a chronic lack of beauty sleep, one could often spot me running to the day’s first class with a rushed term paper (written in not-proofread French) fluttering in the breeze as I dodged my way through the crowd, the hair on my neck wet with sweat by the time I slipped in and took my seat.  Bad enough to be older than the other students; I might at least have gotten my education with a soupçon of dignity.  Every single semester, I was sure that this was the one in which I would be that little scholar I had imagined myself to be:  early, well-prepared, reading done, and dare I say it, wearing makeup.  What I learned—what I really learned—is that this person who I am is not really going to change much, no matter how many vows I make to do things differently next time.  This is about as good as it’s going to get.  And that’s okay, because somehow I got through the whole experience with a 3.47 GPA.  Not bad when every paper was essentially a first draft.

The other thing I learned came to me in the course of learning French specifically.  In my case, the first two classes—French 1 and French 2—were taken at community college.  Good classes, sure, but no match for UC Berkeley’s.  Once in, I floundered through French 3 and, as I told my bemused classmates, “I’ve been behind ever since.”  I lacked the solid, quality foundation they had received.  I couldn’t ever speak as fluently as they could speak, nor comprehend as they could comprehend.  It’s as with life.  Or at least with my life.  That chaos that plagued me throughout school was the chaos in which I was raised.  But I realized that stumbling and inelegance do not preclude grace.  I held my head up high, hair wisps glued to my neck, and kept my sense of humor.  Really, what did it matter?  The education was for me, not for the teacher.  The grades were mine, not hers or his.  I could be mortified by my inability to gain a foothold, or I could laugh. It actually became kind of fun to recount the stories of my escapades and mishaps.  I felt as if I lived in an I Love Lucy episode half the time, especially when I got my papers back with notes like, “I’m pretty sure this is a good point, but this sentence doesn’t actually mean anything in French.”  Whoops.

And so, next up?  Paris for three months!  Of course. Why not? What could possibly go wrong?  I have gotten a perfect little (minuscule) apartment in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, and I am enrolled in my French course at the Sorbonne.  I expect I will run—late—to these classes too, dodging under awnings of cafes, rain flattening my hair after my umbrella flips inside out.  I have spent the last two months imagining what I’ll wear, but it doesn’t mean I’ll be elegant there either.  That’s just not how I roll.  But I’m still going to have fun and live my long-held dream. I may be a mess and horrify my French professors with my accent and malapropisms, but that won’t stop me from eating croissants three times a day and going home quite fat. I want to take cooking classes, and I’m sure I’ll burn something or use too much salt.  It’s okay.  Nothing is so very serious, not anymore.

Other than Paris and a few practical details when I return, the future is undefined, and yet I have this crazy idea that I’ll be just fine. As Susan Jeffers advised, in the classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, I tell myself that, whatever comes up, “I will handle it.”  Now that I’ve ditched that devil named perfection, I really believe I can.

I think what I was learning during all those long, hard years of academia was that it doesn’t matter all that much if I’m frayed around the edges. The point is to have experiences. When I sat in class and forgot that I was listening to French because I understood so much—that was a moment I will never forget. To hear my own childhood situation described in a textbook in Psychology—the early death of a parent—and read that it’s one of the most difficult things to overcome . . . yet there I sat, basically okay . . . that I will not forget.

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And then there was graduation.

At Berkeley, when you finish in December, you can participate in graduation ceremonies the prior May.  So I did.  I had finished Psychology by then, so it felt justified. I bought a navy blue dress and wore the pearls I’d bought for my 50th birthday, and my sisters were there, and I decorated my mortarboard with “Cheyne Women Rock” as a surprise for them. I sat on the stage of the Hearst Greek Theater with my rather small psych graduating class and listened to the speaker talk of mental illness and those who were not present that day because of it. He spoke of the values brought to our society by aspects of mental illness—the acute sensitivity, the deep empathy, the fragile take on life—and I could see on the faces of the families in the audience that every one of us understood.

At the celebration dinner, my sisters said that it felt as if they were at my wedding that day, and I agreed.  I had met myself and wedded together all of my aspects as I had worked for years at that degree, and we were one, myself and I, promising to love and honor, for better or worse.

It was so recently that people with degrees from fine schools awed me.  I met a woman, too, who had lived in France and spoke French, and I was in awe of her. Women who knew how to cook and who wore pearls awed me.  But all of that will be me now.  And there’s nothing awesome about it.  Life is choices, and we make them every day.  And with each turn we take and each thing we try, we get to be utterly imperfect, and yet we’ll still arrive.  And that is a pretty great lesson to get, at any age.