Monday, March 26, 2007


*edited 3/28

Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck.

What makes me feel bad is that I do not have a graduate degree.

I graduated college in 1982. Due to a variety of circumstances, I never made it through graduate school and the lack of a graduate degree has stalked me through the better part of the intervening two and a half decades.

At times, the quest for this degree has felt almost Kafkaesque.

Not that I needed the degree to be what I wanted to be, namely a writer...or even, what I became professionally, namely a publicist.

However, a graduate degree (from the university of my choice) is something that I wanted to have for its own sake, a trophy of my academic achievement, yes, but really a memento of my triumphant ability to rectify a ruined chapter in my personal history.

Yet 25 years have passed since college and I still haven't gotten it.

So, today, I undertook to drive up to Yale in order to talk to the head of the Graduate Program in American Studies. In truth, I have spoken to an endless stream of people -- both at Yale and outside of the university -- about this program since the early 1990's when I first heard about it while researching a story for the New York Times.

(Somewhere in the American Studies office -- if not at the FBI -- there is a fat file with my name on it and a record of my numerous queries. There is also probably a letter from a mental health specialist who was contacted at the time of my fourth query by a concerned administrator.)

Of all the graduate programs that I have not attended (over the past 25 years, I have had also similarly badgered other universities around the country) Yale's American Studies is the one I'm most fixated on attending.

Both for its content and for its very Yaleness.

As a university, Yale looms large in my imagination. It is exactly the kind of college I had dreamed of attending. Because of that, it possesses the power to counteract the negative effects of being forced to attend a school for which there was not even an admissions process, let alone noble architecture and a rarified academic environment.

And today, even after the director kindly gave me a reality check on the likelihood of someone who has been out of the academy for so long being accepted into a doctoral program (though journalists were indeed accepted into the Masters program in American Studies), I was hardly deterred from my ambition.

Putting aside the inherent worth of the course of study itself or the myriad ways in which my studies would inform my writing, I feel that getting this degree would be my personal tikkun, a way of healing a longstanding hurt in my life.

(Recently, I wrote a short story that centers around a Jewish girl in Queens in the 1970's, locked in a battle with her parents over her right to tap into that American rite of passage called "going away to school." Needless to say, that pretty much forms the backdrop to my own story.

As an adult, I do understand that in my parents' eyes "going away to school" was synonymous with doing drugs, sleeping around, getting pregnant, dating non-Jews, breaking Shabbat, getting tattoos, eating non-kosher, joining Jews for Jesus, joining the Hare Krishna, running off with the Maharishi and other activities I was dying to do.

My dad, who had been a congregational rabbi during the sixties and seventies formed this opinion after counseling to the parents of such wayward teens. Thereafter, he vowed to avoid their fate by keeping us close to home.)

The experience I was deprived of as a teen has become fetishized in my mind, tinged with longing and unattainability. Driving through New Haven today, I was adrift in a reverie, seeing myself in every passing undergraduate.

Working on my laptop at the internet cafe on York Street after my interview, I allowed myself to pretend that I was a card-carrying member of the Yale community. I had my Cafe Americano, my wireless hook-up and my paperback of Isaac Babel on the tabletop. Though feverishly engaged in sending and answering e-mails and speaking to clients on my Blackberry, I might have just as well been doing school work.

I was busy -- if not busier -- than the Yalies around me.

Even dressed in Manhattan all-black, I felt utterly at home in this Connecticut college setting.

So I feel in most college towns in America.

I am pulled to academic environments in a spirit that is drenched in the quest to belong.

Those close to me know that, even thirty years later, I feel cheated out of the undergraduate experience I dearly wanted and deserved, I might add, by virtue of having been a well-rounded and high-performing high school student at an elite NYC high school.

Yet, in their fear for our future, my parents decreed that the local branch of city college was the only college option available to their children.

And so...if I have looked towards graduate school as a chance to set everything right, restore things to the way I wanted them to be, give myself a shot at the opportunity that was denied to me when I was 17, why have I failed to actually attend graduate school?

Oh, a complex of mostly, but also relating to the business of not being able to juggle motherhood and graduate work...which seemed infintely more tricky than juggling career and motherhood. Jobs happen during the day when kids are school. Studying, doing research and writing papers often take place at night and on weekends and that would have meant no time with my children.

Even if I had figured how to finance the degree and prevent my family from starving while I took a break from wage-earning, I could not fathom finding this time or having the space to be a student.

I was fairly certain that I would have to drop out due to the sheer impossibility of doing my course work, indeed, I did start one program while nursing a baby, raising two elementary school-age kids and working full-time, only to drop out after six weeks due to the ridiculousness of the undertaking.

The logistical obstacles were real, yet there is another, deeper, more intrinsic reason for the Kafkaesque nature of my journey to grad school.

I hadn't really given myself permission to pursue this dream. On some level, I didn't quite believe that I deserved it.

Now, as I watch my children navigate their way through their respective academic and life journeys, I am filled with pride and excitement, for them and for myself.

I do not seek to control the variables in their lives. I don't wish to shelter them from threats to life values I hold dear. I don't necessarily want their lives to mirror my own. I honor their experimentation. I believe in their intelligence and their character.

And I am thrilled by the opportunities that come their way, the horizons that are opening up to them.

By giving my children permission to grow independent of my constant supervision, I reach back through time and give permission to my adolescent self, encouraging her to pursue her dearest dream.

It is a pleasure to reacquaint myself with my inner adolescent. For someone who was stashed away in storage for 25 years, she looks pretty good and her mind is every bit as sharp as I recall. Energetic and inquisitive, she is caught in that glorious moment of teetering on the threshold of transition; the door to her future is swinging wide open and she is trembling with excitement and apprehension.

What is most pronounced about her, my adolescent self, is the bright flame of her personal intellectual ambition. In the dark of the intervening decades, it has grown even brighter. At night, when the light of this computer screen illuminates my dark apartment, it glows with sheer brilliance.

My mothering is not complete, nor have golden coins begun to rain down from heaven. Middle Babe's college tuition will need to be paid for the next four years and Little Babe's high school and college career looms in the distance. Big Babe may need some financial assistance. The piles of unpaid bills persist. There are no winning lotto tickets on our kitchen counter.

Still, the Three Babes are older, which means that I have a shot at being able to disappear into libraries on weekends and evenings to complete my course work.

It might not be next year and it might not be New Haven (hey, Columbia also has a really good American Studies program...and it's right across the street from the Urban Bungalow), but the feisty woman-child who is my inner and my eternal self has informed me that the journey I have branded as Kafkaesque is about to take a page out of sci-fi, traveling into the future in order to heal the ruptured past.

*Original post read as too long and maudlin. Two days after the visit to Yale, I'm able to get a better grip on the experience. Thanks for living through the (public) rewrites. BB

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