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Back to School

A woman returns to her alma mater after a 45-year hiatus.

Regreso a la universidad- Raquel Stabinski-Leib

llustration by Francisco Caceres. Photo of Raquel courtesy of Raquel Stabinski-Leib

The first day of class intoxicates. The energy bouncing from the school walls could easily light a city. And I'm so glad to be part of it. Having resolved to go back to school, I'm grateful for not having to pore over a catalog in search of courses that offer the most credits. Instead, I can seek only the ones that will bring the most excitement into my life.

Just as education has gone through a considerable transformation in the past 45 years, so have I. Three college degrees and a teaching career later, I'm ready and able to relish the freedom to do and learn what I want. The dreams that remained dormant while I was pursuing a career, earning a living, and raising a family are suddenly within reach.

Now, at 68, I'm once again attending one of my alma maters, Norwalk Community College, in Connecticut. It's no longer an institution that holds classes in the evenings at the local high school, but a large two-building campus. I feel vibrantly young and filled with unbounded energy, the years unexpectedly peeling away one by one until I'm a 20 year old again.

In 1962, shortly after fleeing communist Cuba, I enrolled in the two-year liberal arts program at Norwalk. I didn't care what classes I took or whether they were to my liking. My foremost intention was to get credits for all mandatory courses and transfer them to a four-year university where I could obtain the coveted diploma that would open the doors to a secure and rewarding profession. Propelled by that goal, I didn't let anything stand in my way.

In Line and Ready to Learn

Fast forward four and a half decades: registration day finds me in a line that extends almost the entire length of the first-floor hallway. It's clear I'm not the only "oldie" looking at college as a source of fresh experiences, excitement, and the realization of unfulfilled dreams. As I look around, I notice my good friends: Harold Jackson, whose interests are history and philosophy; and Joyce Fischman, who enjoys the writing courses.

I choose music. When I enter the choir room, where I'm hoping to extend my singing skills beyond the shower, I'm faced with a professor about the age of my son and classmates who, with no stretch of the imagination, could be my grandchildren. Even so, I choose to be blind to their ages and deaf when I'm called "ma'am" instead of by name—and I absolutely avoid mirrors like the plague.

By the end of the semester—and after memorizing all the lyrics with no trouble—I'm confident I'll never again be that little old lady who keeps saying she remembers all the songs of her youth but knows none from the present. I also find, to my utter amazement, that I'm a born performer. In my view, nobody sings at the holiday concert with as much gusto or revels in the applause of the audience—comprised mainly of family and friends—as I.

Out-of-Body Experiences

Having discovered a closeted ham in myself, I next enroll in an acting class, which exposes me to the world of theater.

Once we get past the body, voice, and mental exercises, the instructor assigns individual monologues. I flawlessly learn Rose's lines from the play Fences, by August Wilson, and when the time comes for me to deliver them, my own persona mysteriously vanishes. Once I step onstage, Rose's entity supplants my own, and I become her: a loving black, poor woman disenchanted with her cheating husband.

When I begin to think that Rose will remain my alter ego forever, she is tossed aside by Amanda from Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. This challenging role brings about another transformation, this time into a frustrated mother intent on getting her shy daughter married. Although I'm called to perform only one scene in front of the students' guests, I put my heart and soul into it. That evening, surely brought on by such an exalted state, I dream that I'm Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire…on Broadway!

When I wake up, there's no doubt in my mind that I've created a monster. Who would have thought I carried so much drama in my blood? Not I, certainly. Not my family and friends. And especially not my mother, who forever worries that I might be doing too much.

"Why can't you just relax and slow down?" she asks. I remind her of the Talmudic axiom: "For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of harvest."

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