Growing Up More than Once

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

Lao Tzu (Ancient Chinese philosopher and writer; founder of Taoism.)

The idea for today’s post exploded magically in my head one Friday morning last spring as I drove to campus for a Creative Writing class. I started thinking about the fact that Fall 2022 would be my last semester as a full-time Professor of English at Laurel Ridge Community College. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve been blessed with the luxury of growing up more than once.

Now I’m writing about that epiphany of many months ago. Candidly, until I started working on this post, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the meanings that the expression “growing up” can have.

The most common, of course, relates to the challenges that we all face as we progress from childhood through puberty into early adulthood.

That meaning goes all the way back to the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“The childe Samuel wente and grewe up, & was accepted of the Lorde & of men” (1 Samuel ii. 26).

Sometimes, however, the expression can be used to criticize someone who is being silly or unreasonable. I’m thinking of that memorable line in J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, Catcher in the Rye:

“For Chrissake, grow up.”

I’m not certain that anyone has ever told me to “grow up.” When I was young, people told me that I was old for my age. Now that I am older, people tell me that I am young for my age.

Be that as it may, I’ve never considered “growing up” as a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage where we make it to adulthood. One day, we arrive. One day, we’ve grown up. Voila!

For me, “growing up” has been an ongoing journey from Point A to Point B, where Point B is never the end. Instead, it becomes the starting point of another journey.

Let me explain.

Many people might assume that since I was born in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia my Point A of “growing up” was related directly to “getting out.” Even today, West Virginia is the fifth poorest state in the nation. Without doubt, I remember vividly and well the hardships of poverty–the challenges of living from paycheck to paycheck.

What I remember far more are the values and hard work ethic that my dad (a coal miner) and my mother (a fundamentalist minister) instilled in me. What I remember far more is that they taught me to appreciate, value, and celebrate diversity. What I remember far more is that they taught me to embrace and accept everyone.

What I remember far more are the educators who knew the subjects that they taught and who taught those subjects with passion. What I remember far more are the educators who loved their students and took personal interest in us. They were living witnesses to everyone in the coal camp: we could transform our lives through education just as education had transformed their lives.

For me, my first “growing up” had nothing to do with “getting out.” It had everything to do with getting educated. It had everything to do with going to college.

By the third grade, I was telling everyone that I was going to be an English Professor. Looking back, I wonder what planted that idea in my head. I had never met a professor. None lived in my coal camp or in the slightly larger town where we moved when I started the third grade. I had no idea whatsoever what an English Professor did. I had no idea what I would have to do to become one. But I minced no words about it. I was going to become an English Professor. Yet, how could that ever happen? I would have to go to college and that would cost big bucks that my parents didn’t have. Where would the money come from? My teachers and my parents had answers for me. “Work hard. Do your best. Get good grades.” After a few years of seeing my commitment to academic success, they expanded their answer: “Keep it up. You’ll get scholarships. You’ll see.”

And that’s exactly what I did. I went forward with faith, and, as a rising high-school senior, I started the college-application process. Acceptance letters came one by one but without any scholarship offers. I felt good–really good–about being accepted. Sure. Feeling good would pay tuition. Sure. Feeling good would pay for textbooks. Sure. Feeling good would pay for room and board. Yep. I felt good.

Doors were opening for me to get educated, but, ironically, I couldn’t pay to cross the threshold.

Then, just a month or two before graduating third in my class, I received a letter from Alderson-Broaddus University that changed my life forever. I had been accepted with a comprehensive financial aid package–scholarships, Work Study, and student loans–that covered all expenses.

Can you imagine. Me. A hard-working, coal-camp kid with a dream, going off to college. Me. The first in my family to go to college. I pinched myself, and off I went to college.

As part of my studies at Alderson-Broaddus, I had two academic internships in Washington, D.C. One was with Senator Robert Byrd, doing administrative tasks in his office and delivering mail to United States Senators. The second was with the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–Division of Two-Year Colleges.

When I graduated cum laude from Alderson-Broaddus in 1969 with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Humanities, I landed a position at the Library of Congress, as an editor in its MARC Project. After a year, I moved up and became an editor in the National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints, hailed as the bibliographic wonder of the world.

Can you imagine? Me. The hard-working, coal-camp kid with a dream and three books in his early childhood home–the King James Bible; Webster’s Dictionary; and Sears Roebuck Catalog–working as an editor in the world’s largest library, the place with all the books.

I pinched myself over and over again. I was living in my own apartment in the shadow of the Nation’s Capitol. I was working in the world’s premier library. I was a federal employee with a handsome salary and first-rate benefits.

I had grown up. Or so I thought.

Three years into my federal career, I got hooked on research. The yearning for more learning descended upon me, and I realized that I needed to grow up again.

Off I went to the University of South Carolina where I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, where I became a Mary E. Wilkins Freeman scholar, and where I experienced, for the first time, the joy of teaching.

I was armed with credentials, but I had only one college professorship offer, with a salary so low that I could not afford to accept the position.

I went back home to the Library of Congress where I remained for a total of twenty-five years. I continued my Freeman research and published my The Infant Sphinx: The Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Scarecrow Press, 1985). I worked with the best professionals in the federal sector. I continued my earlier work as an editor in the NUCPP-Pre-1955 Imprints. I became the Training Coordinator for the United States Copyright Office and then Director of the Library’s Internship Program and after that Special Assistant for Human Resources, giving HR advice to department heads as well as to two Librarians of Congress.

I spent a total of twenty-five years as a federal employee, as a researcher, and as a scholar.

Surely, I had grown up. Or so I thought.

But when I turned fifty, I started feeling antsy about that childhood dream of becoming a Professor of English. I started feeling antsy about that childhood dream of long, long ago. I started fussing with myself every day and throughout the days:

“If not now, when.”

On a leap of faith that I would find a college home, I took advantage of a 1998 early retirement from the Library of Congress. I sold my Capitol Hill home, bought myself a Jeep, and relocated to my weekend home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

In August 1999, Lord Fairfax Community College (now Laurel Ridge Community College), opened its doors to me, first as an Adjunct Professor of English and then as a full-time Professor of English.

Some might say that my childhood dream was deferred for a long, long time.

Others might say that I had to grow up twice before I was ready to grow into the professor that I would become.

I tend to agree with the latter group. My education, my research, my scholarship, and my federal service positioned me to move into academe at the perfect moment. I was prepared for my teaching journey. I was ready for my teaching journey.

Now I have come full circle to where this post began. After twenty-three years, this semester was my last one as a full-time professor at Laurel Ridge Community College. On Friday, December 9, I taught my last class there as a full-time professor.

What an incredible journey it has been! I am so grateful to my Laurel Ridge family who have journeyed with me. And I’m even more grateful to more than 7,000 students, who believe —no, more than 7,000 students who know—that an education will transform their lives just as my life was transformed by education. I am pleased beyond measure that they let me be their learning coach. Every day, they gave me one more chance to do it better. Every day, they gave me one more chance to get it right. Every day, they let me be, me. Every day, they let me be a part of the magic. 

Surely, I am grown up now.

I daresay that you have guessed it already. I’m not. In fact, I just heard someone say:

“The good professor is going to grow up again.”

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, for the fourth time in my life. I just did some quick and dirty math. It seems to me that each time I grow up takes nearly twenty-five years. With a little luck, the next growing up will take about the same number of years and will be filled with lots of scholarly research, writing and publishing; lots of teaching; and lots of service. Who knows. Only time will tell.

But here’s how I see things right now. By the time I reach 100, I might have grown up. And, if I haven’t, I’ll keep right on with the important work of becoming what I might be.