When I worked in the marketing department at a state university, I interviewed accomplished alumni: novelists, CEOs, celebrities. I always ended my interviews with the same question. “When did you know you were a grown up?” Usually, my subjects would reply with one of two answers. “I knew I was a grown up when I received my first student loan bill.” Or, “I knew I was a grown up when my son or daughter was born.”
I never knew how I would answer that question.
Surprisingly, this year, I found my answer. I believe that I became a grown up when, four years after earning my bachelor’s degree, I chose to go back to school as a part-time graduate student at the university where I worked. I will never forget how out of place I felt on my first day of class last September, when I wore my usual workplace Ann Taylor attire; it seemed like everyone around me was sporting that just-rolled-out-of-bed-look, complete with sweats and flip flops. Back then, I could not imagine that graduate school would help me discover that, above all, I believe in the power of literature to transform a human life. That discovery is changing me.
A year after my first class, when I listened to a lecture on “Beowulf,” and a few months after my 27th birthday, I left my safe marketing job (and its salary) to become a full-time student. I purchased the first L.L. Bean backpack that I had ever bought for myself. Paralleling the sense of urgency I felt to go back to school full-time, the backpack was fire engine red; it became a symbol not only of my seemingly backward transition from career to college, but also of what I believe it means to be a grown up. I believe that being an adult means living authentically; it means challenging assumptions; and it means not settling for a life you are told you want by other people. When I went back to school part-time, I studied Shakespeare and Chaucer. As I immersed myself in the wisdom of these poets, I questioned my own beliefs. To borrow loosely from Shakespeare, I knew who I was, but I did not like who I was becoming: a person who worked for the weekend.
Literature showed me who I could be. I realized that I did not believe in climbing the corporate ladder, nor did I want a career that denied my true values, especially when I realized those values could not be contained in an Excel spreadsheet, or in the number that appeared in a corner of my paycheck. Through reading, I lived out the difference between the words career and vocation. I chose vocation, because, as Gail Godwin writes in “Evensong,” literature “made more of me.” I remembered Polonius’ parting words to Laertes in “Hamlet”: “To thine own self be true.” I knew I was a grown up when I left my career to follow the direction I sensed within myself.