I’m currently taking a continuing education course through the city to get a certificate as a medical billing coding specialist. It’s the kind of practical thing my mom has always hoped I would do and I have always run as fast away from as I can. We meet in a 6th grade social studies classroom. It is like going back in time.
Apparently, not much has changed in the 6th grade. There is even a laminated poster of a kitten and a dog cuddling to teach us about friendship that looks as if it has been hanging there since I was actually in the 6th grade. I can’t read the text on the poster because unlike when I was in 6th grade, my vision is terrible. I need new glasses but I can’t afford them. That’s just one thing I’m hoping to correct by taking this class. I’d also like to visit the dentist. It’s only been, what, 15 years? That’s the kind of life I’ve been living, while avoiding classes like this.
I feel as competitive as I did back in 6th grade, when I was a teacher’s pet, above average, honor roll, gifted, always the first to finish quizzes. I’m getting B’s now, but I’m getting them fast, damn it. Most of my classmates are older than me, but I am not feeling so young here, just one of the reasons I refer to it as “mom school.”
The instructor isn’t great. She doesn’t teach much, just flips through the material and adds in missing info that will be on the test. She takes questions with a sarcastic sneer and answers as if we are errant children. It’s as if the surroundings of this classroom have mistakenly convinced her we are actually a group of rowdy 6th graders, as opposed to quiet, responsible middle-aged women who are here trying to get a leg up, a career change, a job with benefits, some respect in this world. She wears dark teal scrubs to teach in and I’m not sure why. I don’t know if they’re from her day job, or if she has to, like a uniform or something, but to me it feels like a power play. She already has the job we’re all hoping to get, and it separates her from us. She has something we don’t. Maybe I just don’t like her attitude so I’m looking for more things to dislike about her, you know, the way I did in middle school.
The 6th graders who haunt this social studies class during the day, are learning about the Roman empire. Scrawled across the white board is one of their assignments. They are to write an obituary for a roman citizen. Relevant details include, profession, social status, family, cause of death, etc… I love this assignment. I cannot tell you how much I wish this was my assignment and not the one I currently have. Every nerve ending inside me is buzzing at the nostalgia I have for 6th grade, wishing I were back in this class for real, and not struggling to absorb the dry regulatory jargon of the desk job I am learning about in more modern times.
It is not lost on me that back when I did learn about the Roman empire, as much as that sort of thing fascinated me, as much as I needed it, I have never found a practical use for the information.
I have actually been to Rome, something I’m certain most, if not all the kids in this class have never done, hell, my own middle-aged classmates may have never done it either. I have seen all of Rome’s greatest hits: The Coliseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Sistine Chapel, etc…
It was a trip that totally changed my perspective on life. I was 16. I grew up poor, but I also grew up special. I am American. I’m white. I’m an only child. I went to decent schools. I worked as a Sandwich Artist at Subway for a year, my first job, to save up for the trip. It was my first job that came with a W-2 anyway. I was always working. I threw papers with my dad. I babysat. I cleaned houses, long before my foray into sandwich artistry.
I saved every dime except for $15 from each paycheck. (The $15 went to very important things like Taco Bell and movies.) Before my trip to Italy I had never fully realized what a small part I had in this gigantic world. I had never been somewhere as crowded as Rome. I had never seen a structure as large as the Coliseum. I had never seen any place so old, so ancient, so artful or chaotic or stylish. I had never eaten Gelato.
That place, that trip, was a revelation for me. It was the first time I experienced any real sense of independence. Even though the trip was chaperoned, we were given a long leash. We had lots of free time to shop & explore. We were supposed to stay in groups but socially I was a total outsider with these kids and often wandered off on my own, not wanting to do the same stuff as the others. We had to go out and find our own lunch every day. It was the first time I ever had so much choice in feeding myself. They let us drink wine at dinner. It felt supremely grown up, and I constantly felt under dressed.
Everyone knows that teenagers tend to believe they are the center of the Universe, but I all of sudden had some concept of my place in the world, and I realized I had a lot more to learn.
It’s strange to find myself back in a classroom, learning new things, practical things, things that matter and don’t, like Rome. That trip to Rome has never helped me get a paycheck. These paychecks I hope to get as a result of this course will never make me feel like Rome did, or being young did. If I save them up though, maybe I can go back to Rome some day.
That’s something that this course, for all its flaws, can offer me. It can offer me some hope. I may not like the teacher, but I’m grateful for her role in this. I may not like feeling out of place, but it’s the step you take to transform. My insignificance in this class, is just as acutely felt as it was standing in front of the Coliseum. I am a grown woman sitting in a tiny desk, too big for it all, but still needy, like an 11-year-old kid.
When I complain about the teacher, my mom, who I am still living with, who is still the boss of me, at 33 years old, wants me to stand up for myself, to complain, reminds me I am a paying customer, that I spent money to be in this class and that I deserve to have my questions answered.
It’s the first time it’s occurred to me that I have any kind of power like that, not ever, not in my life, but in this class, because that’s how surreal it feels to be a grown woman in such a childlike environment.
Sometimes I feel selfish for wanting my own home. Sometimes I feel selfish for wanting more money. I think about people who are homeless, who are living in poverty, starving, who have lost everything, orphans, refugees, and I cannot believe that I would ever complain about my incredible fortune.
It feels wrong to want so much more than I already have, but is it wrong to want to feel like an adult? Is it wrong to want to feel some autonomy, some responsibility? I don’t think so, and I wouldn’t begrudge any other soul for wanting that same freedom, not me, and not orphans, and not refugees. I have to want more if I don’t want to feel dependent.
The thing is, of course, that in America, independence comes at a high price, and if I want it, I’ve got to want money and I’ve got to work hard to get it. Certainly, if I want luxuries, like trips to Rome, I’ve got to get on my grind, like I did when I was 16. It wasn’t any more fun being a sandwich artist than it will be at my desk job, but it will give me hope, and it will give me purpose, and I will be useful, and I will be able to give back more in honor of what has been given to me.
After class last week, I was approached by some other students to form a study group. It seems I’m not the only one who finds our instruction a little lacking and there are other people who are just as nervous about passing as I am. I think we can help each other. We agree to meet and to share answers the teacher won’t give us. I’ve never been great at working in groups but it’s time for me to learn some new skills, so I’m going to try. I want to go from getting the fastest B’s to the fastest A’s.
It’s Lent, and my little church has given us a book of daily readings. The end of the first reading for today, Ash Wednesday, says:
We all have the power to let go of self-defeating thoughts. What thought do you need to deny and release today?
I think it’s that I can’t be more, can’t succeed, that I can’t want more for myself, that it’s selfish to want more than you have, that there isn’t enough, that I am not enough… It’s a lot, but it’s connected. It is as connected as a 6th grade class learning about Ancient Rome, and a woman who has been there, learning about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which was enacted when I was just about the same age as them. It’s all in the same room.