Never too late: my journey back to school at 51

Tudor Robins back to school posing with textbook

You may have read Robert Fulghum’s essay, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and yes, it’s true — kindergarten is a time of immense learning.

But as a 51-year-old woman closing in on final exams at the end of my first semester of college, the lessons I’m taking away go much farther than the required courses in my paralegal program. Here’s what I learned that wasn’t in any textbook:

Show up. I’m not the best version of myself every day. Some days I’m tired. Some days I’m irritated. Some days I make a deal with myself: I can wear sweatpants and a hoodie. I don’t have to participate. I just have to go and put my bum in my seat. And you know what? It makes a difference. Just being there, day-in, day-out, really has mattered. It has cemented relationships with my classmates and my profs. And, more often than not, at some point during class I’ll find myself raising my hand, asking a question, participating. Nothing can happen if you don’t show up.

Everybody has a story. I walked into my classroom on day one and saw a sea of people. They all looked ready and poised to learn. Today I know so much more about all of them. They’re people who practised law for many years in other countries — Afghanistan, El Salvador, India — and are now starting over in Canada. They’re single mothers, going to school while they work full-time and represent themselves in family court. They’re people taking the bus for 90 minutes each way to come to class. They’re amazing. The world will be a better place when they’re all paralegals.

Give what you can, when you can. During our orientation session, the two students sitting next to me didn’t have pens, so I shared my extra pens with them. It was nothing, and it was everything. Every day our class shares with each other — time, expertise, snacks, sometimes just understanding. We make each day better for each other. Some days it’s a little pick-me-up, some days it’s the thing that makes you able to straighten your shoulders and go to the next class.

Seize the moment. When telling me about his new job, my brother-in-law said, “This is going to sound silly, but I feel like everything I’ve done has led me here.” Far from sounding silly, it hit home. I’ve always been open to going back to school, but nothing gripped me until I stumbled across the possibility of being a paralegal. I found I could study at my local college. I learned they offered a condensed one-year graduate certificate program. I discovered there was a January intake. With that exact feeling of everything leading me to this program, I submitted my application. Sometimes, when all the arrows are pointing in one direction, that’s the way you need to go.

Know your why. School is great. And school is sometimes hard. You won’t get through the weeks where you have an assignment due every other day, and a midterm exam on the days between, if you don’t know why you’re there. I know the difference I want to make, and I’m confident this program — and my eventual licence — will give me the tools to make that difference. Just like in parenting, or a relationship, or your career, the hard work is worth it when you know the end goal.

Do your best … whatever that might be. Aim high, by all means, but recognize that sometimes just handing the assignment in is a triumph. Some days, just putting your bum in that seat is a win. And, not every time, but there are times when it’s okay to ask for the extension. Which leads me to:

Other people want you to succeed. I got a hundred per cent on one of my midterms. I tell you this not to brag, but to say the only person happier than me was my professor. He was beaming — giddy — when he told me. I’m happy when I see my classmates give a great presentation and get rewarded with a high mark, or when they just do their best in a tough week and hand an essay in on time. We’re all happy for each other when we walk out of a tough exam and say, “At least that’s behind us!”

Of course, not everybody needs to go back to school. I respect you if you found the perfect job right out of high school or after you first graduated from college or university. Doing something you enjoy is a gift.

But if you’re an adult and you have been contemplating a return to school, I’d encourage you to go for it. Yes, it can be tiring, and yes, it can be mind-bending. But so can constantly asking yourself, “should I / shouldn’t I?”

The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be done. And if you’re kind to yourself, and to your fellow students and professors, the journey along the way can be incredibly rewarding.


The honest talk