“What on Earth am I doing here? What was I thinking?“ I mumbled under my breath as I was going through another airport security style check during my IELTS exams. A minute before, I had been sick on the toilet, pale, shaking, sweating, which reminded me of why I would decide not to continue with further studies in my twenties in the first place. The overwhelming fear of being tested is so exhausting and paralysing for me. You freeze and can’t do anything. You are not able to sell what you know, prove your right to be in an Academic institution. In the meantime, your peers appear to easily sail through everything. The exam nerves and self-confidence (or the lack of it) can mean the difference between grades A or D, or getting your first or second class degree.
Yet, at the ripe age of forty-two, I am putting myself exactly through this self-torture. I am twice as old as anyone in the room full of budding international students. I am also allowing myself to go through further humiliation when a lady checking my ID says that I look very different in my photo. Yes, madam, I am fatter, with less hair, huge circles under my eyes but it is still me. Shall I provide my DNA? (The current me is minus long hair, which I had to cut as lots of it fell out after my second child; it is also plus about two stones, or fourteen kilos for those using the metric system, and about four years of not sleeping much). I grin politely. Surely it cannot get any worse? I picture my journey, and my dreams, ending in this room.
It turns out that I did all right in the IELTS, after which I got unconditionally accepted to study a part-time Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the Newcastle University. When you are a bit older than the average student, it is a massive decision to make: it can feel like now, or never.
The idea of applying for a postgraduate course was planted during our Christmas visit to my husband’s relatives; one of the honorary guests was an American lady of about fifty-five, a mature student in the UK, who resolved to do something for herself after devoting decades to her family. I admired her courage, her inspiring attitude.
At the time, I started thinking what to do with my life. Like many women after children, I felt I had to re-invent myself. No one is waiting for you; you feel too old with one-too-many offsprings to be considered a prospective employee. I am not a high-flier, or a career-ladder climber.
One of the reasons why I have never made it to the “secure” high career level is probably the same one that makes me fall apart every time I am supposed to face any testing. So what am I supposed to do? Become an overqualified part-time cleaner? Yes, I could retrain as something more marketable and desirable such as a nurse or a midwife but I am old enough to realise that would be a waste of time and money; I would be lousy at it.
What else can I do? What has been the one constant my whole life, despite the repeated self-destructive acts of a well-practiced auto-sabotage? What is it I would choose to do if money were no object? What is my one happy place where I feel I can celebrate modest successes, like having my work published? I realised the answer was there all the time.
The one advantage of age is that many years of mistakes mean that you finally know yourself. You have fallen and got up many times. You are at last fully aware of what you have always wanted. It has taken you a long time because everyone has been telling you, you can never succeed. No one does, do they? Or perhaps they can after all. Now, you can at least try and see…