Today, in the unseasonable March warmth, I had a brief intimation of adulthood. I can't pinpoint what triggered it, but I can tell you how it went.
I walked to my car, after finding out class had been canceled and Spring Break was getting an early start. After exchanging comments of relief with a passing classmate, I pulled my keys out of my jacket pocket with a little flick of the wrist and swung my bag back around behind me. As I stuck the key in the door, I suddenly felt like I was being filmed. And that on the film, I would look like a reasonably attractive twenty-eight year old who knows how to open a car door.
What I mean by that is this: I am ten years into my majority, and I still feel like a child. Fairly often. I enjoy the advantages of being young at heart, such as not being afraid to dance in public, or make funny sound effects that describe people's actions (when the situation calls for it). But I do not enjoy the lack of confidence and overactive self-consciousness that besets me at times. It's not usually apparent on the surface. And it's certainly not debilitating. But I must admit diminishes my quality of life, ever so slightly, and in subtle ways every now and then. And it may be the reason I am still an undergraduate student at 28. The fleeting thought that a person passing me on the street could pick up confidence and maturity from my simple key-flinging moves really got me thinking.
I do things all the time that require confidence. I landed myself a great part-time job. I bought a house. I audition for plays. I offer help to strangers. I founded and preside over a club at school. I plan events. I go talk to professors about things without being invited. I submit writing to be published.
I think the big reason I am feeling so backwards about this (my adulthood) is that I am at a very different stage in my career than many twenty-eight-year-olds.
I went to a gifted school as a kid, before I moved to Arizona. Almost every friend I had there has grown up to be and do something mind-boggling. My best friends from fifth grade? One is now in politics and helps stop human trafficking and crimes against women in eastern Europe. She even worked for Interpol! The other is a Senior something or other (Senior sure is fancy though) at a huge enterprise management company. My little "boyfriend" from fifth grade went to MIT. He is now a molecular biologist and still lives high on the hog in Massachusetts. The older brother of my friend at the management corporation? He grew up to be gorgeous, and now has a TV show on the Travel Channel. I had the same education as these boys and girls right up until the eighth grade. And then I went to Tucson.
Should I blame Arizona? No one I went to high school with there has done any more than I have. My AZ friends are just as intelligent as my old Maryland friends who made it big. But they have regular working-class jobs and struggle with paying for school (or deciding whether to continue) just like I do. I know some of you may read this, and I'm not saying any thing bad about any of us. I'm just wondering how much a high school's reputation or a hometown name or capitalism has to do with this. And if those factors are what lead to confidence -- the very confidence I and my AZ friends are sometimes lacking, even if we have no real reason to doubt ourselves.
Forgive my rambling, but I am sorting this one out as I write. It's true that the quality of my schooling declined after eighth grade, but my "quality of mind" did not. What fostered this lack of confidence that may have led me to leave college after my first year, to my inability to create artwork under pressure at art school, to assume, now, that my professors won't like what I write even though I've been writing essays for over ten years?
I want to be a Marxist and say "economy!" My life story screams "product of material conditions." My dad was a truck driver and my mom mowed golf courses. I lived in a trailer park for seven years. Sounds convincing, but I can't ignore the other data I have to draw on. My AZ friends had more means than I and were not first generation college students like myself. While they did not grow up ridiculously rich like my Maryland friends, they were middle class at least, and two of them have successful lawyers for parents. But now we are all even-Steven. So perhaps we are all just products of Tucson schools and a Tucson environment?
The only conclusion I can arrive at is this: that every adult has a lack of confidence at times, but they know how to suppress it or overcome it. My friends from the affluent DC suburbs are masters at this, just like when they were kids. They can wear this confidence mask because they've always had support. And I think I wear it every day too, as I write articles for work, stand and deliver lines on-stage, or talk to a professor about a project. My mask is fashioned from a life of striving, of pride in coming from nothing.
But I have never been able to do this on a grand scale, as in, when considering a life-altering decision such as a school or a career. The mask gets sweaty and it has to come off. The great confidence that I have in my ability to become an English professor is a new thing. Maybe I am growing up. Maybe that's my real face that's smiling at the prospects. Or maybe I can smile that way about it because there's about six more years before I'll actually have to face the outcome! I'll be a grown-up by then. I think.
So, applying to grad schools is going to be a big test for me. Let's see if I can aim as high as is appropriate (adults are realistic you know) without holding myself back as I have done all these years. And I hope that all my wonderful friends from Arizona will do the same when they consider their returns to college.