Linda Kelsey, novelist, newspaper columnist and ex-editor of Cosmopolitan, is excited and challenged as she begins a four-year degree course at the age of 58
Standing at the bar ordering drinks with a stupid smile on my face, I am struck by the fact that the drinks are half the price of any bar I’ve been to in the last decade. But that’s not why I’m grinning.
The reason I am smiling ear to ear is because this is the Union Bar. The Student Union Bar to give it its full name. And I’m here because I’m a fully paid-up student with her own student ID pass to prove it.
I can hardly believe my luck. At the age of 58 I’ve joined the growing throng of late-life learners and I’m feeling as skittish as a schoolgirl.
Forty years is a long time to wait to fulfil an ambition. But that’s how long it’s taken me to get around to taking up where I left off at the age of 18, after dropping out of university.
Throughout four decades of a successful career, including stints as editor of Cosmopolitan and SHE magazines, and writing three novels, what I perceived as my lack of education has pricked constantly at the edge of my subconscious.
It bubbles up whenever I have failed to articulate an idea to my satisfaction, and in the company of friends and colleagues with their Oxbridge degrees and intellectual confidence.
When I got to 50, I determined to try to do one new thing each year until I keeled over. From small things, like getting a dog, to big ones, like writing a novel. So far I’ve succeeded.
I think this desire to return to learning also has something to do with becoming single again in my mid-fifties. This commitment to a four-year degree course feels like something solid, something I need to replace the ground – the ground that was my marriage – that has been swept from under my feet.
My first day was terrifying. Aside from the professor – with all the letters after her name, while I had none – most of my classmates looked about the same age as my son, who’s 22.
Going back to school at 58? What was I thinking of?
Only the week before I had gone out to walk the dog around the block without taking a key, locking myself out of an empty house. How could I hope to get through a three-hour exam at the end of the academic year if I couldn’t remember my own key?
Had signing up to a four-year, part-time evening BA degree in Arts and Humanities at London’s Birkbeck University been nothing more than a foolish whim? Would I succeed in juggling daytime working with night-time lectures and seminars as well as family and social commitments?
Looking around the room more carefully, I saw that in among the 20- and 30-somethings there were older students. And I soon discovered that everyone was suffering from freshers’ nerves.
During the break I got talking to Romy, a holistic therapist from Brighton, who told me she was a single mum with three teenage children. “The only O level I did was in boys,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m up to this, but I’m determined to give it a go.”
I also talked to Alan, who had suffered a stroke in his mid-50s, as a result of which he had taken early retirement. I had companions after all.
Now that I’m in the swing of it, I have learned to revel in the incredible diversity in the age, background and ethnic origin that is the hallmark of studying at an institution such as Birkbeck. I can relax and appreciate the perspective of a firebrand 22-year-old who has been taking part in the student protests about tuition fees as much as that of someone whose ideas and experience are closer to mine.
And if I’m somewhat overawed by the brilliance of a young seminar leader who knows so much more about philosophy (though perhaps not about life) than I do, I am thrilled to be in such smart, enthusiastically analytical company.
It seems the teachers at Birkbeck quite like us students as well. “It’s a joy teaching you lot,” one of them said as we left class after a workshop on dreams and the unconscious. “Unlike a bunch of 18-year-olds, you all have something interesting to say.”
I’m not pretending it’s easy. I’ve sweated over my first essays, and had trouble understanding the texts, some of which I’ve had to read three times over.
When I opened the envelope containing my first marked assessment I was trembling. And when I read my teacher’s complimentary comments I have to confess I cried with pride.
At night now I tuck up in bed with Marx or Machiavelli, Descartes or Freud, and fall asleep while reflecting on bigger things than my personal anxieties. As a result I sleep rather better than I was before.
I’m not sure I’ve become more interesting to anyone else, but I’m definitely enjoying my own company more.
Update April 2012: Linda is still studying and thriving on it