Callie wonders, for the–oh, nineteenth? twentieth?–time this week, what the HELL she is doing here. Thirty-five years old, two girls, their daddy off and running–only coming back to upset the kids, try to borrow money, tell her she’s worthless. Her car is crap; she’s laid off from her job; she worries about missing the rent and losing her apartment, which isn’t exactly a palace in the first place.
But her employment counselor swore she could work this out. Two years, he told her; two years and she’d have a degree that would get her a job where she could maybe make forty thousand a year. He showed her the kinds of aid she could get, that she could probably get a job on campus.
Something stirred in her when she met with him, long buried dreams. Stupid dreams, probably. A freshman in high school, she wanted to be a veterinarian. She loved the science; the math wasn’t so bad; and everyone said she had a special hand with animals, especially old ones, sick ones. But that was the year everything went to hell. Her father left; her mother got worse and worse. She herself started running at night, started skipping school.
Maybe she did it just to get in trouble, but it never happened. She realized pretty fast no one cared what she did.
Why should she care then? That’s what she’d figured.
That kind of figuring gets you this, she thinks: thirty-five with a 17 year old who wants to be running herself.
But here she is, Callie, traipsing into a big, bright room, full of rows of cushy chairs, between a midget girl who looks like a tattooed twelve-year old and a very chubby–oh, hell, downright FAT–girl, maybe twenty two or three, who she hasn’t ever heard say one word, not one, after a whole week of Freshman Seminar class.
They are in convocation.
“Convo WHAT now?” she asked her teacher, Dana, who teaches medical courses during the regular term. (She’ll probably have courses with Dana, which is good, because she likes her. Fair and funny.) The way Callie said it must have just been comical, although she didn’t mean it that way, because the whole class cracked up. And Dana, who is large and round faced and pretty good natured, grinned.
“Convo WHAT now, indeed!” she said. “How many of you have heard of convocation?”
No hands went up, so Dana explained. It’s like the opposite of graduation, the ceremony where you get IN to college.
They find their seats. Callie’s second to the end; Tiny Tattoo’s last in the row; Big Missy on the inside. That music is playing–da, da da da, DAH da–that they always play at graduations. Solemn.
They were among the last of the students to come in, two rows filling in behind them, and then the music changes, gets louder; it’s like a march. There’s a woman on stage who signals them to stay standing. On either side of the standing students, teachers begin to file in, slowly, walking to the music, like flower girls, Callie thinks, at a fancy wedding. They wear their graduation robes and the flat hats with the tassels; they look straight ahead.
Callie can’t help it; there’s a beat, a leap, in her gut.
It almost makes her mad.
The stage fills up; some of those people–the important ones, she thinks–have beanies on instead of the flat hats; the last faculty member files in; the music fades. The woman on the stage signals them to sit, checks the microphone (it’s working), and disappears down the aisle.
The speaking starts.
One of the beanies–she thinks he’s the president, short and dark and squat and a little fierce,– gives a talk where he tells a story and then says, “Let me tell you something. You couldn’t tell me anything!” It’s kind of funny; he talks about how much he screwed up, and then the army straightened him out; he started college in there and never stopped. But there were bumps along the way: every time he says, “Let me tell you something!” she kind of leans forward, waiting for it: “You couldn’t tell ME anything!”
Callie notices Tiny and Missy leaning into it, too.
She drifts, thinking of next week, when the real classes start. She has to take a catch-up course; she took a test, and her math is rusty, but the counselor told her she’s in the highest math before college level. And she got right into English composition; she’s worried about that, but proud of it too. She’s always been a reader. She writes a nice letter, people always say. Psychology and medical terminology–that one, the advisor says, you really have to just study and memorize, study and memorize,–but all those terms come in handy. It sounds hard.
She doesn’t know if she can do it, really.
She is taking medical laboratory. The advisor showed her ads. You really can make forty thousand a year, she told Callie, although you might have to move to the city.
For forty thousand, she’d move, Callie thinks, but then she jerks her attention back to the stage where the fierce little president is saying, “Let me tell you something! People, even people you love, might tell you you’re an IDIOT for going back to school!”
She can’t believe he said that; those are the exact words her ex used. He said, “Going to college? An idiot like you?”
The president says, “When you graduate, you’ll have to ask them who the idiot is.”
Callie imagines seeing her ex on the street, stopping in her new car, saying, I know I’m just an IDIOT, but… Imagines driving off, laughing, leaving without him, for once, getting the last word.
The president wraps up, they all applaud; some teachers troop on stage and sing that song about your life being an open book and what you write in it is up to you.
Then a lot of people get up and talk, but it’s not so bad; they’re not boring really, and some of them are funny. She laughs at one joke and Big Missy turns and smiles at her. Callie can’t help it: she smiles right back. That girl, big as she is, has the most beautiful big brown eyes.
A teacher gets up and explains what all the dress-up stuff means–the hats are called mortarboards, the sleeves tell you how many years you went to college; there are golden ropes you get to wear if you make honors. And then if you go on and get a bachelors you wear something different, a little cape-like thing maybe, and then you could get a master’s, and that’s a different sleeve.
A thought pops into her head, unbidden: Maybe I’ll keep going.
Callie looks around like it came from somewhere outside her. What was that? She hasn’t even figured out how to make this happen, how she can do this part, and she’s planning for two years from now? But it’s a thought; it’s a chance, and she feels the idea burrow down, deep underneath. She’ll let it be.
When she finally decided to do this, she was embarrassed. It took her a couple of days to tell the kids, after she went ahead and signed up, right there at the employment place. Her kids are surprised, but they’re proud, she thinks. She just mentioned it, kind of offhand, like, “I don’t know about it, really, but my jobs counselor says I should do this.”
“College?” said the younger one, and her eyes lit up a little, interested.
“What would you take?” asked the 17 year old. “What kinds of things can you study?” Last night, when Callie shut her book and headed to bed, the girl said to her, “It’s pretty cool, Mom, that you’re going.”
This morning, she was a little pisspot all over again, but it’s something. A start, maybe.
Music again. They stand up–trained monkeys, Callie thinks,– and a young girl–the student senate president, one of the robes on stage explains,–comes to the microphone and asks them to take the little gold pin off their programs. Callie takes hers off carefully, not ripping the paper. She looks at Tiny Tats; her hands are shaking. She can’t do it.
Callie takes the program away from Tiny, takes the pin off for her. They read a pledge off the program–about being responsible, about dreaming big and meeting goals, and they put the pins on. She helps Tiny; Big Missy turns and lets Callie help her, too. What am I–their mama? thinks Callie, but she doesn’t mind at all; likes it, in fact, and she smiles at each girl and pats her shoulder.
The teachers all stand now, and they turn to face the students, and they applaud.
“Welcome to the College,” says the person on the stage, and the singing teachers troop back up, and they sing the school song, the alma mater, which has lines about changing lives and building futures and oh, my college, I love you.
Callie thinks she has never heard such a load of crap. She can’t figure out why she’s crying.