Visible Faith: On Grad School and Ageism -The Toast

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Any woman who goes back to school at the age of 68 for a degree that seems to be, on the face of it, entirely worthless is necessarily living by faith. When I returned to Columbia University’s School of the Arts to secure an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction, I know I sure was. Trusting that the universe would provide, that the usual impediments would simply melt away, I, the faithful one, plunged in, seeking a way to carve out what might yet be left of a future. Most people, considering my age and my past life, thought I was there more out of vanity than a bid for survival. Now, as I near the completion of the program, as I struggle to write my nonfiction thesis and my Literary Translation thesis, as I stave off the need to face what comes next by taking shelter for another year in a “research arts” program, I have to wonder if it’s possible to maintain my faith.

It’s been a fitful two years in my M.F.A. program — much of it fabulous, some of it plain frustrating. Walking the twenty blocks uphill from my apartment in Harlem to my Columbian Valhalla every day, I envision myself gifted with the opportunity to exchange ideas with the gods. Every class has afforded me an opportunity to rethink something I thought I already knew, to perfect my craft, to acquire and assemble facts, to turn my beliefs upside down and then to realign them. It has been glorious, but not without trials and errors.

Some of the ancillary staff at Columbia found me odd at first. Guards and librarians would cast disbelieving looks my way, even as I displayed my student I.D., and they would often challenge me to prove I was a student and not an interloper. Once they were thoroughly convinced, however, they never forgot, and then treated me with a degree of respect I still don’t believe I deserve. My decision to go back to school was not brave. I had left home — my husband’s home — and my marriage at age 55 to seek a new life. When I later chose to go to Columbia, I was motivated by sheer necessity. I had reached a dead end and could not afford to retire.

In my previous life, I taught high school theater and English in Connecticut, a state that does not pay into the Social Security system; because I only started teaching in my forties, I would have had to teach until my late eighties in order to earn my pension. So when I left, I left empty-pocketed, anticipating that I would easily find work. I had been a teacher, a producer and director of theater and film, a writer with a following; but here in New York, my history and my age conspired against me. Because I taught, my prospective employers assumed that I couldn’t “do.” All my other experience was overlooked, and I wound up getting a job as a New York sightseeing guide atop a double-decker bus — an open double-decker bus, uncooled in the summer, unheated in the winter.

Going back for this M.F.A. felt like a matter of life and death for me, the only means by which I could hope to survive to be the writer I wanted to be and to live long enough to enjoy my granddaughters. The truth is that I hadn’t expected to get into the program at Columbia; when I did, I hadn’t expected to get financial assistance; when I did, I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously. But many of my fellow students did, and that made the trying times worthwhile.

I love sharing ideas with others in my program, students who are hungry to learn. I love being exposed to the vibrant imagination that surrounds me here. The classmates with whom I interact are generous, accepting, and encouraging. We have a lot in common — like me, many of them struggle with serious imposter anxiety; every one of us was at first constantly afraid someone would realize we had been erroneously admitted and didn’t belong among so many brilliant writers.

Occasionally, it takes some time to convince a classmate that I am not annoying. I am not a quiet student. I have a lot to say and much experience to underscore my outspokenness. I can seem opinionated, despite the fact that I am open to suggestions and often influenced by others’ observations. In one of my classes, one young woman would sigh loudly and roll her eyes every time I raised my hand. I thought she was one of those “mean girls” I had avoided when I was her age. Then she read one of her pieces aloud, and I heard her maturity, her deep appreciation of the world around her, and I told her I was impressed. We bonded. Turned out she’d lost both her parents before she reached her teens, and had had a hard life that left her with an acute sense of humor and a remarkable zest for living. I had misjudged her as badly as she misjudged me; we both benefited from the revelation.

In general, I feel appreciated, even loved by the “kids” who sit around the tables with me. Except for a few of the older male faculty members, my professors have also made me feel welcome. But I was surprised by the degree to which the more mature male professors seemed unnerved by my presence, and they became the main source of my day-to-day anxiety. One of them, a jeans-wearing survivor of the pseudo-hippie revival of the ’80s, once announced to our class that Thomas Hardy only began writing poetry after he reached his sixties. “Just when the brain is atrophying for most people,” he said, staring at me, “the man became a world-class poet. Imagine! You’ve got to be some kind of brilliant to defy those odds.” I glared back at him, but said nothing.

Another of my male professors, who seemed a throwback to the three-piece-suit-wearers I had encountered as an undergrad at Columbia in the ’70s, actually shushed me one day when one of the younger women writers and I were about to speak at the same time. This man regularly scowled at me when I spoke, and he told me in conference that “no one uses language this way,” referring to my basic writing voice. He often ignored my hand in the air and denied me any opportunity to speak in class. Clearly, I made him uncomfortable, and he had no other choice but to keep me aware of it at all times.

I did have several younger male professors who were as generous and open with me as the female faculty. And I must acknowledge that one of the kindest, most enlightened, most validating people I’ve found at Columbia is a male professor of my own generation, a man of great renown. But the ageism I have encountered from professors tends to be specific to men my age, or thereabouts; my guess is that they do not want to be reminded that they, too, are aging: an older woman in the room is an unavoidable mirror.

More saliently, I think older men know what young people don’t yet, and what women are sometimes not as willing to acknowledge — that once a woman passes the mid-fifties mark, she is supposed to be invisible. She is supposed to fade into the woodwork and be quiet. She is “unfuckable,” and that renders her unworthy of great thought. There are, of course, exceptions: a woman who has achieved a certain status, or a woman who has proven herself as a colleague, commands respect, is welcome in certain areas. But a 68-year-old woman­ who has spent her life in pursuit of other goals — who has raised a family, provided the means by which her children could attend Ivy League schools, made some movies and written some screenplays but clearly has not had the gumption to get a real career — is beneath contempt if she insists on being noticed.

At one of our gallery readings, I had written an introduction for our mistress of ceremonies to read about me: “Carla Stockton is the oldest student in the M.F.A. writing program.” It got the laughter I had intended. But one of our older male faculty members sneered, “Oldest student? She’s the oldest person in this room!” It was snide, and it was hurtful; one of the female professors sitting in his row of seats tried to hush him, but he didn’t even flinch. I think he thought he was being cute. As has happened so often since I reached this state of advancing age, I was reminded of how audacious it is to want to remain productive after the reproductive organs have retired.

There have been other reminders. Applying for grant money was a debilitating experience; just reading the grant stipulations was a kick in the head. So many of them stated that anyone over 30 (or 28, or 26, or 35) need not apply. Lifelong learning be damned; you’d better not expect to get any assistance if you have the temerity to attempt to build a career once you’re too old to be a mother, once your funds and your time have gone to supporting your children’s educations. Even applying for a fellowship within the university was like riding a trick horse into a dark closet. It did not seem to matter that I had twenty years of experience teaching in a creative field; that I had coached my students and helped them write essays that got them into selective schools or short stories that won them prizes. I was deemed too old to be worthy of a fellowship that might help turn secondary teaching experience into something that could help me get an adjunct position at a university or college. My experience, my age, and my expertise all worked against me. Some female faculty members spoke on my behalf, but still I was passed over for four twenty-somethings with little teaching experience.

Of course, all my tribulations at Columbia are hardly different from those I have been experiencing since I left my marriage. A friend recently remarked that I should have walked away much sooner, while I was young enough to be noticed: “You’re alone, without a financial buoy, and now you have to worry about things you shouldn’t be worrying about at your age.” I always believed that it was better for my children to have two parents; that if I needed to create a new life, there would always be time for second chances. How was I to know how bleak the landscape is for a woman facing the twilight of her life?

Except for those in that fabled One Percent, women inevitably fare far worse in divorce than men. And the older they are, the worse they fare. Though 90% of divorced women initiate their divorces, a divorced older woman is often considered tainted merchandise. Unless she has been physically abused, the court is likely to show her no mercy in the doling of property. Even though my salary was less than a third of my husband’s, I was required to forfeit enough of our joint assets to cover half of the parent loans we took for our children’s education. Women are not nearly as likely to remarry after a long-term marriage ends in divorce; we are less apt to want to re-engage with the kind of verbal abuse and unreasonable expectations we had allowed ourselves to tolerate, and so we learn to live alone. But then we live with the stigma — the assumption is often that we are single because there is something wrong with us. At a holiday party hosted by one of my film company’s benefactors, one of the wives of Fairfield County in attendance that evening cornered me and asked, “Is it true? Are you really divorcing? But my dear, you’re obviously over 50…so old! What on earth will become of you?”

I’ve been asked if I’ve met any men in school — if I found younger men to date and fool around with. I cannot think of anything I would less want to get from my years roaming these hallowed halls. But I do know that there is a way to meet and engage with young people who stimulate my creativity and encourage my growth as a writer. Sometimes a young person can bridge the ageism gap and provide the hope I have such a hard time holding onto.

In my last year of teaching full-time in Connecticut, during one of my summer theater gigs, I was fortunate enough to work with a talented young designer/director named Daniel. We co-produced a few projects, and then we collaborated on the writing of a book for another person’s musical play. At the end of our first year of collaboration, Daniel asked me to join him in his film company as a writer, producer, and partner. Naturally, rumors flew all around us, but they were absurd. What Daniel offered me was something no one ever had before: respect for me as an artist. I had been a daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, caretaker, teacher to many people, but no one ever said to me, “Your art counts” — I had always been required to put my own work on hold, to save it for after everyone and everything else were taken care of. Daniel heard it screaming inside me, and he encouraged me to give it light, to nurture it, to let it breathe with me, for me. When I told my husband, a successful engineer, that I was suffocating, that I needed to pursue my writing, he scoffed, “Well, what about me? I always wanted to be a poet.”

Finally at Columbia, among my fellow students and writers, I am constantly reminded of how I could not live in any other way but as this writer I have become. I’m fairly certain, now, that I will be okay. I am reconciled to the fact that ageism –and anti-feminism — will always be my foes, but I’ve learned to live and thrive in spite of them.

I will stay on at Columbia for another year. I will write my two theses. With any luck, I’ll qualify for another round of work-study jobs that will sustain me while I figure out what to do next. Here on top of Morningside Heights, I can still believe I will have that future, however short it might be, and I’ll go on dreaming in the hope that my efforts to re-start my life have not been in vain. I am finally doing what my last high school English teacher suggested when he wrote in my yearbook: “Carla, if hard work be the key to success, you will surely have the world by the tale.”


[Image via Flickr]

Carla Stockton is a candidate for the M.F.A. in Nonfiction and Literary Translation at Columbia University's School of the Arts. She is also a mother of three, grandmother of two, writer, theater director, filmmaker, teacher, and traveler.

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