Friday the 13th is my lucky day. On May 13, 2011, I learned that after six years of study, I'd be receiving my master's in children's literature at Hollins University. When I told my sister in an email that I was graduating, she responded, "Well, whoopee and hallelujah! You finally got through. It seems like you've been in school for the last 20 years so don't know what you'll do with yourself now."
Well, actually, she — nor any of my family members — knew then that I'd already received a two-month scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was leaving in three weeks to take beginner's classes in Lithuanian.
My first book, Izzy's Fire, was a nonfiction account of life in Lithuania during World War II and the Holocaust. When I began my studies at Hollins, I decided to write a young-adult historical novel, also set in Lithuania, as my thesis. It is as yet unpublished. I have visited Lithuania twice for events related to Izzy, and I plan to return for more research, thus, the classes in the language.
There's a reason I love education. Actually, there are two. My mother, who was yanked from school as a sixth-grader so she could help with her younger siblings during the Depression, always mourned the loss of her education, and my illiterate father had to work harder than any man should to provide for his wife and four children. As a result, the importance of learning was ingrained in me.
At 17, following my graduation from Manchester High School in 1963, I entered what was then Chowan Junior College in Murfreesboro, N.C. I didn't return for my sophomore year after the third boy I dated on campus proposed. We put our studies on hold, trading college for love.
Sixteen years and two sons later, hoping to take piano lessons, I visited the Alberta campus of Southside Virginia Community College, just a few miles from South Hill, where my husband, Oscar, and I had moved to escape Chesapeake's asphalt and give our children a taste of country living.
During my initial visit, a counselor advised me that, thanks to credit from my previous college courses, I could earn an associate degree in two semesters. When Oscar realized I hadn't registered, that silver-tongued encourager said, "Well, you big dummy, go back tomorrow and do it," having no idea that he had just pushed a boulder off a cliff.
I never did take those piano lessons. Following my graduation from Southside, I accepted a scholarship to Virginia State University. I earned my bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies in 1981 at the age of 36, having driven 100 miles round trip whenever I attended classes, all while working full time and caring for a family.
I had encouraged my husband to follow suit and cheered when he also graduated from SVCC and VSU, obtaining his Bachelor of Science in business management three years later at the age of 42. Our whole family was in school for seven years. Finally liberated, the refrigerator door nearly collapsed with relief when I removed all the grade reports.
Oscar died suddenly in 1991, and I eventually relocated to Richmond. Through scholarships and a friend's outright gift, I was able to afford a master's from VCU's School of Mass Communications in 2000. By then I was 55. When I told my sons and their wives that another patron had offered to pay my tuition for a different graduate program at Hollins in 2005, Jason asked, "Is this the same woman who swore she'd never write another research paper?"
Anticipating their response to my attending the University of Wisconsin at nearly 66, I'm simply going to tell them, "It makes perfect sense. How can I go to school in Lithuania if I don't know the language?"
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.