If the gown fits, wear it

When I heard that I had to wear a black gown for my graduate school commencement, I searched the house for the robes I wore when I graduated from college in 1985. I looked in the attic, back of my closet, and in the basement and finally found it, along with my diploma, nestled in a small trunk in the corner of our living room. I picked up the nylon gown and tried to shake out the wrinkles, wondering if these things go out of style or if I’d have to plunk down $35 for a new one? I was tentative when I tried it on because we all know what the years can do to one’s figure. I’m proud to report that after the 23 years, the gown still fits — as does the cap.

What also fit was going back to school in middle age. I was nervous about this venture because academics never came easily to me due to learning disabilities. But I found the perfect solution — a mid-career program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute called a Master of Public Affairs. This degree has an ironic title given that mid-career and middle age is often a time people have affairs — although they usually try to keep their actions private. I suspect many middle age affairs happen because people are worried about getting older and are just plain bored. They make the affair public to add a little spice to the situation. To them, I recommend graduate school. You get to experience all the same things as an affair — sleepless nights, exhilaration coupled with impending doom, and financial strain — but with less drama. While pursuing my degree, I walked around the University of Minnesota feeling the exhilaration of youth and future promise.

I’d like to say that academics were the focus of my undergraduate experience 20 years ago, but the truth was at that time I was more interested in boys and how to find the next party. This time around, the boys I worry about need rides to soccer games, and my desire for another party is wanting Democrat rather than Republican. In grad school, I threw myself into my coursework not because I wanted good grades but because I was fascinated with the subjects and really wanted to learn. Who would not fall in love with a class called Leadership for the Common Good?

At middle age, I am able to layer my academic coursework onto my experience in the community. For decades, I’d scratch my head and wonder what went wrong in this or that situation. While at graduate school, I’ve been inundated with “Ah-ha!” moments. People weren’t mad; rather, I discovered that we had not consulted with the appropriate stakeholders. Meetings were not boring; rather, the chair did not create an outcome-based agenda. I was learning how to be a leader, and I felt like young Mark Twain as he learned how to be a riverboat captain in “Life on the Mississippi.”

“You only learn the shape of the river; and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that’s in your head, and never mind the one that’s before your eyes.” I’d think about this line from Twain’s book — about subtext and subtlety — as I biked home last summer from the university along the Mississippi and through South Minneapolis. In middle age, the river does appear to change shape. Rocks, in the form of aging parents and your own immortality, create ripples on the surface. You can shut your eyes and see the future.

This month I turn 45. I can’t think of a better time to put on that cap and gown and march. After all these years, the fit is just right.

Jocelyn Hale is executive director of the Loft Literary Center. She shares this column with her husband Glenn Miller. They live in the Fulton neighborhood.