Back-to-school has always been a time for fresh starts and new possibilities. I associate it with the busyness of children — of backpacks and bus stops and new class notes. A time for parents to wrap their schedules around bell-time logistics.
As a single mom of two, New York lawyer Carolyn Edgar has been through a dozen years of back-to-school buzz. This year, it was time to add one more class schedule to the mix.
Along with her high school freshman son and college freshman daughter, Edgar, 50, who worked for IBM before attending Harvard and becoming a lawyer, just headed back to class — in an MFA program at the City University of New York. She is pursuing her dream of becoming a novelist. Whether it happens is beside the point, she says. It’s the mental work it took to get there — to start something new and creative in the middle of her high-powered corporate life — that’s the story.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 38 percent of higher-education students are older than 25, and 25 percent are older than 30.
The Web site Grad School Hub lists the average graduate student at 33, an age that has remained relatively stable for decades, but the site stresses that “there may be an average age for a graduate student, but there is no age cap.”
Edgar had studied English but got a job in sales at IBM. She loved writing, but just for herself. And everybody, parents especially, wants to see young dreamers settle into real jobs.
“At IBM, I was all focused on business,” she says. In law school, an essay about her experience as a black Harvard law student (she knew fellow student Barack Obama enough to say hi on campus) caught the attention of a professor who published it in a magazine he founded. It was the first time she had ever found validation for writing. The first time she told herself, “Oh, you could actually do this.”
She clerked at author Scott Turow’s law firm in Chicago. His legal thriller “Presumed Innocent” had just been made into a Hollywood movie and “all of us were star-struck.” When the young associates asked him how he juggled being a lawyer and a writer, Edgar remembers he said simply that “he always intended to do both,” so that’s how he structured his life.
She wasn’t quite sure how that worked. For nearly a decade, she tried to do both and failed. She would take writing classes, only to drop them because of her workload. Then came a husband. Then came kids. Time kept slipping, and Edgar reached a crossroads — and a realization.
We have only a finite amount of time to be the people we always said we wanted to be. Sometimes we let that version of ourselves slip away, then we just say that we’ve moved on in a different direction. Sometimes we lie about what we want because we don’t know whether we have what it takes to get it.
In 2008, Edgar started blogging. She wrote about her parents passing away. She wrote about the annoyances of jogging in Harlem (catcalls). She wrote about parenthood, then single parenthood after the divorce. She began writing about popular culture and doing commentary for CNN, the Huffington Post and Salon. It still wasn’t enough.
She applied to two graduate schools right at their deadlines, and when she was accepted at CUNY, she was like, “Wow, I was prepared not to be accepted.” Then she was like, “Wow, I need a backpack.”
She and her children all started their new schools within the past month. She does law during the day and school at night. First up in the program: playwriting. When she gets home, her son “wants to know what I’m writing about” and whether he’s in it. She doesn’t know how long it will take her to finish the program or whether she’ll ever be a novelist. It is the permission to fall short, not the determination to triumph, that allows us to try. For now, it’s just enough that she’s started and that her kids see that.
Edgar says she reminds herself of a little girl who says she wants to be a writer when she grows up.
“When I sit in my room late at night after my son has gone upstairs to his room and I’m doing my homework, I’m happy,” Edgar says. It sort of feels like a back-to-school lesson for everyone.
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.