Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Mature Student

As I walked into class at the IT Tralee for the first time, armed with a biro, a notebook and a strong desire to learn, a young woman in her early twenties, eyed me up and down:

“Cool,” she said, licking her lips suggestively, “a fit lecturer.”

I smiled, sucking my stomach in an extra inch over my acid washed jeans.

“I’m not a lecturer,” I said softly, taking out my course timetable. “I’m a student, same as yourself.”

Truth is, at 43, with no iPod, piercings or tatoos to be seen, it was an easy mistake to make.

When I signed up to do a Masters in Business, a full 20 years after achieving my primary degree, I wondered whether there would be anyone on the course who fondly remembered Blake’s Seven, The Human League and The Prisoner as I did or if all the chatter be about Lost, The Arctic Monkeys and Prison Break.

I was initially comforted by statistics which showed that 13 per cent of all full time college entrants in Ireland are mature students, until I dug a little deeper and discovered a mature student is defined as anyone above the ‘barely out of short trousers’ age of 23.

When the rest of the students milled in to class, they were all, as I expected, in their 20s. Everyone carried a bottle of water – in my day a hip flask was de rigeur - and they brought folders, highlighter pens and computer memory cards. Each raised an eyebrow or two upon discovering an ‘extra’ mature student in their midst.

And it wasn’t just the younger generation who expressed surprise at my decision to return to college.

"What are you thinking of at your age?” one of my golfing pals asked disapprovingly, while another muttered something about me having a mid-life crisis.

When the real lecturer arrived (ten years my junior) I braced myself for questions on Florence Nightingale, the Easter rising, and living through the First World War.

But instead we were asked to talk a little about our experiences as undergraduates. When my turn came, I explained when I was first a student back in the mid-1980s, I lived a simple life.

I started the day with a lecture or two and a quick spin to the college library to feed my brain and build on my powers of reasoning. Then it was off to the betting shop in the afternoon, to brush up on my mental arithmetic and to develop life skills, such as accepting defeat with grace. Finally I would spend my evenings at the theatre, seeking nourishment for the soul.

“I’m not ashamed to say I shed more tears in the Abbey than I ever did in Terry Rogers,” I said proudly.

“You’ll find the routine a little different nowadays,” the lecturer said handing out a wheelbarrow load of notes and course material. “Your first assignment is due in midday, Wednesday week and remember,” she said glancing in my direction, “you need to submit it online.”

The weeks and months flew by and suddenly the gruelling, brain sapping, mind numbing torture that is exam time was upon us. The hardest part of all was the actual writing itself.

Isn't it simply extraordinary that 20 years on from my early college days, we are still writing exam answers in longhand? We've advanced sufficiently to incorporate blackberrys, wiis and iPods into our daily lives, but not far enough yet to permit the use of technology in exams.

I hadn’t used a biro in years, save to scribble hurried notes on a telephone message pad or choose the also-rans in the Grand National. And after writing for hours with one, my scrawl became so illegible, I had to switch to BLOCK CAPITALS, which makes it look to the examiner like you need URGENT MEDICAL TREATMENT.

But once the exams were over and a 10,000 word thesis was safely negotiated, graduation began to loom large. Twenty years ago as the cameras flashed, I proudly held my primary degree aloft and shouted 'freedom', long before Mel Gibson stole the idea for Braveheart.

This time round I made more of a fuss.

I wore my robe and hat everywhere for a full week after graduation - to the local school to drop off my son in the morning, to the supermarket for the weekly shop and most importantly, to golf on Saturday morning with my pals, to show the begrudgers, the cynics and the naysayers that you’re never too old for a bit of learning.

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