Mom gets a lesson in making the grade

I suppose everyone has a thing or two about themselves that they'd rather not discuss, and I am no exception. For me, the fact that I didn't finish college was one of those things. I never lied about it, but I didn't exactly bring it up, either.

While walking past a large university on my way home from work one warm June evening, I noticed a line of gowned graduates filing into a side door, an excited spring in their step, and I began to conjure up what was to become a recurring fantasy.

In its early renditions, I simply walked across a stage to pick up my diploma, and my husband snapped a few photos of me, smiling and squinting in the sun after the ceremony. Later versions involved me at a podium, making speeches and accepting awards. There was a large crowd of well-wishers in the audience, many of whom were moved to tears. Some of those present, like my grandparents, are not even still with us. That's the beauty of fantasies - they don't even have to be possible.

Visions of this nature absorbed me a lot when I was younger, such as the one that hatched one morning as I stood looking out my bedroom window.

I was holding my daughter with one arm and watching two women play tennis. They were trim, tan, and dazzling in their tennis whites. I was wearing an old bathrobe and probably had applesauce in my hair, neither of which interfered in the least with my new vision. In it, I was about 10 pounds lighter and quite fetching in my tennis skirt.

"I'll learn to play tennis someday," I said to my toddler and the cat. I remember this so vividly because of what happened next. It was one of those epiphanies I have heard others speak of, compelling me to page through my fantasy catalog, factor in my age, and face facts: I would probably never be a foreign correspondent or join the Peace Corps, and - truth be told - I had little desire to learn tennis. But with all my heart, I wanted to finish college.

As is often the case with a life-altering decision, taking the first step was a Herculean task. I came up with a long list of reasons why I should not go back to school, not the least of which was my fear that it would be too difficult and I would humiliate myself.

I therefore concluded that the only acceptable way for me to return to school was to get straight A's. If I couldn't do that, I'd quit.

The first time I got a B, I locked myself in the bathroom and carried on with such intensity that my two-year-old must have thought the end of the world was near. She sat down on the other side of the door and cried with me, though she had no idea why.

When my husband finally came and carried her away, I heard him trying to explain my absurd behavior, saying, "Mommy wanted an A, and she didn't get one."

About 15 minutes later, I was still sitting in the bathroom, sniffing, when I observed a large sheet of construction paper sliding under the door. It was the collaborative work of two artists, the medium was crayon and glitter, the subject was a letter A so beautiful it could have starred on Sesame Street. My daughter has always had the ability to help me focus my priorities when I lose my way.

A few years later, when I had earned the right to walk across a stage in a cap and gown for real, I couldn't remember why it mattered. My diploma arrived in my mailbox one day, sandwiched between the mortgage bill and a supermarket flyer. I remember the way the sun warmed my hands and shoulders as I sat down on the front steps, slid it out of its large envelope, and rubbed the seal with my index finger.

It wasn't exactly my dream come true - it was better.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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