~by Shawna Belt Edwards
I always knew I’d finish my degree, but I didn’t know it would take me until I was 50 to do it. I had married John during my junior year of college, and we moved away and began having children. Since then I’d been a stay-at-home mom—the only job I ever wanted—but I planned to go back some day and finish what I started.
It seemed like the perfect time when three of our sons were students at the nearby university. I envisioned the four of us studying on the same floor of the library, meeting for lunch once a week, and even taking a class together. Then reality set in. I could only do a tiny fraction of my homework in the library. There wasn’t a single hour where we were all free at the same time, and taking a class together meant taking a nonsense class that wasted time and money.
So, it wasn’t quite like I imagined. In fact, it wasn’t at all like I imagined. The only studying I’d done in 20 years was to help with 5th grade math homework, and only because John was out of town. I couldn’t believe how much they expected me to read! And most challenging of all? I had to learn to use the computer. I was painfully slow at it, but by the end of the first semester, I could cut and paste without scissors, send mail without a stamp and browse without getting out of my chair.
There were other challenges as well. My son, Gary, describes the day he saw a woman across the campus courtyard, contorting and flailing her right arm while trying to get it under her backpack strap. I came from the era that didn’t know what “ergonomics” was, and we carried our backpacks slung over one shoulder, like a purse. But my aching back didn’t like that approach any more, and apparently, my strap was a little too tight, and as Gary drew closer he realized, “Oh my goodness. That’s my mom!” He hurried forward to help me, and probably to keep me from making a bigger fool of myself.
I was a piano performance major when I was a young student, but now, with two teenagers still at home, practicing 4-5 hours a day was out of the question. So I searched for another major. I had recently begun writing songs, and there was a major that sounded perfect for me: Media Music. The only problem was it would take me four years to graduate.
Wrong again. It took me six years. I struggled to complete assignments, and at least once a day, I said aloud, “What was I thinking?!” In the meantime, two of our sons graduated and moved on, and our daughter enrolled as a freshman. I often felt like I was just watching life through a window, not actually living it, and everyone seemed to be progressing but me. More than once, I told John I was quitting, but he encouraged me to hang in there. I was thankful for his support, and for reasonable professors and helpful students. And for Gary.
Gary had a full-time job, so it took him six years to finish, as well. When we discovered that we could graduate together in the spring of 2009, I had another reason to plow ahead.
Along with his own studies, Gary patiently listened to every version of every song, jingle, composition and film score piece I wrote. He has incredible taste in music, and he was my best critic. While most other people had the same reaction to everything (“I like it!”), Gary had the courage to tell me when it wasn’t good. Sometimes he even said, “I don’t like that at all.” Every once in a while, I played something for him for the first time, and he loved it. Then I knew I had something.
Finally, the big day came—April 24, 2009—and I underestimated once again. Only this time, I underestimated how great it would be. There was Gary, looking like a million bucks in his slightly wrinkled gown and his awkward hat, with his arm around me, introducing me to everyone he knew. “This is my mom,” and he seemed to be as proud of me as I was of him.
We took that long walk together, from the administration building, across the sky bridge, to the arena. We waited in the hallway until it was our turn. The announcer had been combining relatives all day (brother and sister, husband and wife), but when he saw our cards, he smiled and whispered, “Cool!” He announced, “Gary Edwards, graduating in biology, and his mother, Shawna Belt Edwards, graduating in music.” There was a long, loud applause from the audience while we posed for pictures, and as we walked off the stage, Gary asked, “Were they cheering for us?” I said it was because I was finally graduating and they were glad to get rid of me.
As the school year approaches, I feel a little nostalgic. I miss going to class, meeting new friends, and drinking in that wonderful back-to-school air. But more than that, I miss Gary, who has gone across the country to medical school. I miss how he makes me laugh at the stupidest things, rearranges my furniture and then puts it back again when I change my mind, plays Hoopla with me until 2 AM, does the dishes, watches American Idol with me, and carries my luggage on every trip. And of course, I miss his critique of my latest song.
Everybody takes a different path through life. Mine has been a little unusal, but I wouldn’t go back and do it differently. I wouldn’t choose to graduate when I was 22 or try to finish faster, or get my degree in something easier, because then I would have missed out on graduating with Gary – an experience that I will cherish forever.