Many times over the last four years I’ve asked myself if being here, at Yale and back at school, was really the great idea that I once thought it was.
I’m not concerned that returning to school after 20 years as a stay-at-home mom has been a mistake, nor do I regret seeking a Master’s of Divinity degree. But I have been concerned that going to school full-time and sitting in class with younger, brighter, better students has not been my “finest hour.”
My academic story began when I received a B.A. in French from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in 1982. Jay and I got married a week later, when he was 21 and I was 22. After moving to Houston, we had Jonathan in 1984 and Meredith in 1986, and together we remained in Houston for the next two decades.
But when my children left for college, I decided I was not going to be one of those moms in our neighborhood pretending she still had a household to run, with children to feed and carpools to drive. I had a plan. My family was skeptical, since they had never seen me in a capacity outside Sunday school teacher, carpool driver or cook. They wanted me to have a new life, but they were nervous about what that might mean. Change is difficult for everyone. Family dynamics are never static.
They recognized, as I knew, that I needed something new. So through fear and trembling I filled out my seminary application. I started seminary in Houston in August 2005, when I was 45 years old, and one week before Meredith began college. I tried to maintain my “normal” life, even though I was doing radically new things and my family had entered a new period in our collective lives.
I found myself writing papers in hotel rooms all over the country, where I was attending board meetings and conferences related to my nonprofit work. At break time, I would go up to my room and study while others were making friends or napping. Many days I, too, needed a nap. My time at seminary in Houston lasted three semesters. I remained isolated from the other students and professors. I felt no sense of community. This was not what I had in mind.
I took off the spring semester of 2007 to help my 70-year-old parents celebrate their 50th anniversary. I also helped them renovate and move into the house next door to ours. My old life still had obligations that I was not ready to walk away from, and I recognized I was not an island, but part of a family system that both supported me and required things of me. This is one of the many things that grown-ups usually figure out.
During my hiatus I decided I was going to undertake a college search just as my children had done. I would go on-line, visit and talk to others. I looked at schools on both coasts and in the U.K. I walked around the empty family house belting out in my best Diana Ross voice:
“It’s my turn
“To see what I can see
“I hope you’ll understand
“This time’s just for me.”
During that time a friend, Linda, said at one of our board meetings that I needed to come visit Yale Divinity School. It was a ridiculous idea. I was not Ivy League material, and why would Yale want me when it could have young, brilliant minds that did undergraduate work at equally prestigious schools? But I put aside my reservations and did the research. At least on paper, Yale Divinity School was the best choice for me.
The day I visited Yale — the same day the accepted students were on campus — I had a huge case of imposter syndrome. I had not even applied. Linda showed me around and introduced me to some pretty impressive folks. Not just academically impressive people (though I later learned that was true, too), but people that I wanted to get to know. I sat in the Refectory eating lunch with a few of them and it hit me: “I could be here. I can see myself sitting in this chair every day at lunch. I could fit in here.” No amount of research could have put me in that place. It was a guttural, irrational place deep within my being.
And now that dream is reality. I am here, taking classes, writing papers and learning how to function despite great sleep deprivation. I know how to break the backs of my paperback books so they will look as if I have read them. I know how important a good study group is. I sit in the Refectory I once visited and eat lunch with some of the same folks I met when I was a prospective student. Many of them are my age, and many are the same age as my children. But they are my friends. They are not the parents of my children’s friends or my husband’s business friends. Young and old alike, they pick me up when I’m having a bad day, study with me and pray for me.
The experience has not been easy. It has required an especially difficult transition for my husband. He now commutes between Houston and New Haven every other week. Had I gone to that other school in Boston, he would have had a much easier commute, a fact he hasn’t forgotten. It takes him about nine hours to get here from Houston, but I remind him that it took me nine months to give birth to each of our children. I would have preferred the nine-hour commute.
I am summa or magna cum nothing. I am not Ph.D.-bound. It has been difficult, very difficult, at times overwhelmingly difficult, but it has been easier than raising children. I found what I was looking for.
I have a much better grasp of the Bible, as well as the commentaries and theories that attempt to bring some clarification and reality to its words. I learned that a great professor is more important than any subject matter. I came here uninterested in the Old Testament, and I am now taking my fourth Old Testament class from the same professor. That is the mark of a great educator.
Now I am preparing for graduation. There were many days when this seemed an unreachable goal. I have learned enough to realize there is much more that I don’t know. I have stacks of books waiting to be read upon graduation. Rather than Yale Divinity School being the termination of my studies, it is really just the beginning. Three years in, I know I am not an imposter.
Debra McLeod Sears is a third-year graduate student at the Divinity School.