I would not say that I have any regrets in life. Even people, decisions, and events that caused me trouble or pain have made me who I am today. Everything from the past frames the life I live now. Since I am pretty satisfied with who I am and the life I have, I cannot regret anything. I would not want to do things differently.
There are, however, a few things I wish I could revisit. I am not going as far as saying I wish I had not done what I did at the time, but I wish I could somehow go back and take the path that I did not take the first time around. I want to experience two parallel realities… what I actually did and what I left behind.
One of those few “path not taken” experiences has to do with my college years. I read many novels as a kid about teenagers going to college. These teenagers always seemed to be going off to ivy-covered halls, living in dorms in beautiful small college towns, and enjoying an entire college lifestyle. Their time was filled with coursework, socializing, studying all night in the library, and participating in a mad rush of school spirited activities. Admittedly, most of these books were published in the forties and fifties. I graduated from high school in 1977. I am sure my experience would have been much different.
Still, I imagined the college life inside my head. I fantasized about a college life that would look like the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah lives of the co-eds in my novels. I saw myself going away to college, developing a life away from the safety net of my familiar surroundings and loving parents. Growing up in Southern California, I dreamed of going to a school someplace that had seasons where I would wear crisp wool skirts and sweaters when classes started in the fall, see snow blanket the campus under the sharp winter night, join hordes of rollicking students welcoming spring relaxing under the warm sun on the quad, and happily go home for a refuel each summer. I craved history and charm. I did not necessarily think of an Ivy League School, but I did want a school that oozed history and tradition. I did not want to go to a mid-century “living better electrically” university. I would not go to an “education factory.” I would go to a college where education was a fine art.
As the time approached for me to apply to colleges, somehow all my fantasies deserted me. For some reason, I never thought I could make my fantasies a reality. In looking back now, I think there was every chance I could have done so. My grades were excellent. I had reasonable SAT scores. I participated in the speech club, girls service club, high school newspaper, and Junior Achievement. I came from a solidly middle class, blue color family. My parents made enough money to live comfortably, but I was afraid that the cost of educating me at a private college where I would need to be a resident would be beyond their grasp. I never asked and I still do not know if they would have been able to help me. I did have a part-time job in my last year of high school, although I did not make much money. I could have paid for part of the cost. I also could have applied for grants and loans. My parents believed it would be impossible for me to get financial aid because they were in a sandwich economic bracket- not wealthy enough to afford a “fancy” college education and too well off for me to qualify for financial aid. Today, I am not so sure that would have been true, especially if I had gone to a more expensive institute of higher education.
I also worried about leaving home. I wondered if I was confident and mature and worldly enough to hold my own in college lecture classes of 100 students, much less live an independent life. Now, I know that most graduating seniors feel the same way. College does not necessarily require that one already have these confidence, maturity, and worldliness skills. In fact, college is the place many young people acquire them.
Whatever the reason, finances or maturity, I did not achieve my dream of going away to college. I spent two years at the neighborhood community colleges, completing most of my general education classes and earning an AA degree. The man I eventually married called it “high school with ash trays.” I continued to work while attending classes. When I finished there, I transferred to a local commuter college about 15 miles from the home where I lived with my family. Four years and about $2000 (all in) later, I proudly graduated. I had my degree. I had set myself up to move respectably into a stable government job. I had a bachelor’s degree, but I do not think I can say I really had the “college experience.”
Years past. I married immediately after graduation. I did well on my job. While just scraping by in the early years, I could take care of myself and my husband financially. I continued to progress in my career. I received promotions and pay raises. Eventually, Congress passed a federal pay reform act that resulted in me being quite well-paid. I bought a tiny condominium in southern California. I retired with a nice pension, sold my condo at a great profit, and bought my sweet little house here in Florida.
My career also provided me with enough money to take vacations. Over the course of the years, I visited Williamsburg, VA several times. My parents spent their honeymoon there and we stopped there when driving across country for a family wedding when I was about twelve. I went once on my own as an adult. Max and I have been there three or four times. I love the place. On the first trip Max and I took, I realized that the College of William of Mary (where we spent a good deal of time on that trip) was the college or my fantasies. That was the campus that exemplified the college experience my novels described.
Now, I cannot really go back and start my college days over again. I would not even want to do that. However, in retirement I have been busy thinking about how I can capture some of what I would have wanted from that experience. I did some research and found out that William and Mary has something called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. It offers a wide variety of limited time classes for people (aimed at the senior citizen population but open to anyone) who just want to learn “stuff.” Because of COVID, their offerings have been done through Zoom and other distance learning platforms this past year. This allowed me the opportunity to participate. For the price of $135, one could sign up for as many as eight classes in the semester. I got a bit of a late start and some of the courses that drew my attention were full when I registered, but I did sign up for two classes during the spring semester. This involved 4 sessions and added up to about 8 hours of instruction. It was terrific! It was so good, I am continuing this summer. The summer session is even less expensive, and I have four classes I will be taking.
Last month, when Max and I were in Williamsburg, we walked around the campus again and I felt such a sense of connection. It was so indescribably satisfying. In the bookstore, there was a small stuffed bear in a graduation gown inscribed with the William and Mary logo. Max kept pushing me to bring the bear home with me. I resisted, insisting that I did not qualify to have the bear because I was only an “adjunct” student and certainly not a graduate. A few days after we got home, a neighbor came to our door to deliver a package that had been erroneously left on his porch. I opened the box and “Wilma” the bear was inside.
Sometimes, some facet of fantasy gets so enrooted in your soul, it qualifies as reality.
What event or decision in your life would you want to revisit and experience the road not taken the first time? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a regret-free day!