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Continuing the college fairy tale

By Tricia J. Barnes

For 30 years, a copy of The Torch yellowed in a side table of my childhood home. I remembered the photo shoot that featured my mom and me, but had never read the actual article penned by Rosemary James, my mother. Her story, written in 1979 and titled "My College Fairy Tale," sent me in search of a hidden identity. Could my mother possibly have been more than just my parent? As I began looking at both the literal and literary picture of her as a "mature” student, I saw a familiar image reflected in her story.

The original photo captures a cute kid sporting the ubiquitous 1970s shirt and some trendy yarn hair bows. That kid is the six-year-old me. The studious adult in the shot is my mom. I am currently the age that she was in the photo, forcing me to examine where she was then and where I am now. The parallels are startling: we both returned to college in our mid-thirties, attended Fullerton College, and wrote for the magazine. Thirty years of differences separate the stories of these two “mature” students, but like all mother-daughter comparisons, the similarities are impossible to ignore.

My parents pursued their college degrees in different, non-traditional trajectories. Dad earned his degree by taking classes at night while working full-time during the day. My mother was unaware of scholarships that could have financed college, and instead chose work, marriage, and family. After we moved to California, she resurrected her education by pursuing an A.A. in Journalism at Fullerton College. Then she matriculated to Cal State Fullerton to earn a B.A. In Communications. I recall her graduation seemed very important to my parents, but I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. I didn’t realize my mom struggled to maintain the sometimes-competing identities of mother, student, wife, and individual. I certainly didn’t appreciate her talents or her drive. As her kid, I just wanted Mom to make my jelly sandwiches. Because both my parents achieved their college dreams the hard way, their kids chose the traditional route. My brother followed in my mom’s Cal State Fullerton footsteps, whereas I craved the individual attention of Chapman University. I took summer classes at Fullerton College to graduate in four years. At the end of that hard slog, I had a shiny new degree in English Literature, but no real job prospects.

One of the myths of growing up is that once a college radiate has a diploma in hand, the rest of his/her life should be clear. It was pretty muddled for me. I needed a break from four intense years of college, so I joined the rat race of real employment. After a year away from academia, I entered Chapman's graduate program with a tentative goal of emerging an English teacher. But the price tag, along with the prospect of a career that I may not even like, led me to become a grad- school dropout. Back in the workforce, I enjoyed my job, but missed the challenge of school. Eventually, I suffered the infamous job-related injury, which ended my career. My body had been hurt, but my mind — though dormant for over a decade — still clung to life. I needed to get back into the writing groove, so 30 years after my mother had walked these leafy paths; I was again a student of Fullerton College. The experiences of a "mature" student three decades ago contrast sharply with those of today. My clearest memory of Mom’s college experience is her dragging me along to newspaper class. I recall sitting underneath a huge drafting table set with clippings of "The Hornet” raining down around me. Modern students take the "cut" and "paste" commands on their computers for granted. Not many people realize there was a time when people physically cut with scissors and pasted with glue. My memory of that room is crowded with the flying litter of newsprint amid the distinctive smell of rubber cement.

Most of the huge differences between 1979 and 2009 have occurred in technology (see sidebar). Earlier this year, one of my professors played a You Tube video of "World Destruction” by Johnny Rotten and Africa Bemata. That act would have been impossible in my mom’s student days.

In 1979, teachers did not waltz in with laptops, plug into a port, and download media from the Internet. Laptops didn't exist. The Internet didn’t exist. You Tube didn’t exist. (I’m pretty sure Mom’s interest in the Sex Pistols’ lead singer didn’t exist either.) While the differences between our two generations are glaringly obvious, some similarities exist between Mom and I as "mature” students. We are both a bit nerdy, loving the rush of a good grade. We also share a perfectionist editorial bent, being especially harsh on our own work or each other's. I read Mom's article with a highly critical and grudgingly admiring eye. As a daughter, I smile at the nostalgic scenes. As a writer, I struggle to separate the author from my parent.

I get drawn into the cadence of her words, the images of the story, then stop short when she uses a comma differently than I. Similarly, in reading my work, Mom will commend it in one breath and point out a grammatical error in the next. After my mother earned her degree, she tried out several different career paths. She was a freelance writer for Orange Coast Magazine, a public relations officer for Cypress College, and assisted the V.P. Of communications for an aerospace company. Eventually, she found a career that fulfills her marketing skills and social-butterfly personality; Realtor.

I am now embarking on my own path that will (hopefully) help me develop into a freelance writer. The subjects that interested my mom vary from mine, but we both still feel the creative pull of writing. Looking back, I see the tricky balance beam on which I teeter. I admire my mom as a student, as a writer, and as an individual, but I want my own identity separate from "Rosemary's daughter." Sometimes I relish the similarity of our gifts and skills, other times it irritates me. Her article has reassured me that she went through the same struggles of finding herself, through school and through life. But, like many other daughters, I want to walk my own path, not follow in my mother’s footsteps. By getting a small glimpse inside her experience as a "mature” student 30 years ago, I have gained some insight. I can appreciate and respect the path that she walked and even possibly learn from it. By recognizing the footsteps she has placed before me, I can feel a bit more confident in choosing to walk slightly off her beaten path.

Fullerton College Torch
Published: Monday, December 28, 2009
Updated: Friday, January 15, 2010