Me and my MFA

From The Halifax Daily News, August 10, 2001

In the early years of my teaching career, it became a predictable rite of spring. The president’s secretary would call. She was just proofing the university’s Calendar, she’d say, and she’d noticed someone had obviously left something out. In the listing of faculty members, the space beside my name – where my personal alphabet soup of advanced degrees from Oxford, Harvard, or wherever it was that I’d learned what I knew should have all been listed – was . . . well, it was blank.

Sorry about that, she’d say, but don’t worry. We can correct it before the Calendar goes off to the printers. Just tell me what to put in there.

I would stammer. Uh, well, er. . . nothing.

Truth? The last diploma I can lay my hands on is from Richmond Junior High, the long-since closed north-end Halifax school whose claim to fame is that it was smack in the path of the 1917 Halifax Explosion, and not, alas, that I am among its more accomplished alumni.

It’s not that I didn’t go on to high school or university; simply that I didn’t leave much of an academic impression anywhere I went. I managed to get waylaid on the path to parchment by what seemed to me to be other at-the-time-at-least more interesting diversions.

My university career ended one-half credit before I would have finished my undergraduate degree.

“Don’t worry,” I told my worried mother as I made plans to set off in my VW van to find myself, “I’ll just get that half-credit when I get back.” I tried. I enrolled in a course the next fall. And the fall after that. And the fall after that. And the…

For some reason, I’d forget to buy the texts. Or go to class. Or write the exams. After a while, it seemed silly to pretend.

For more than 30 years, my mother has continued to worry that I won’t amount to anything, that my lack of a piece of paper will put paid to any dreams of a secure, meaningful career/life.

Surprisingly – and luckily – it hasn’t. For reasons we need not explore today, I managed to slip under the academic radar screen and into a job teaching in a university program in which I academically didn’t even qualify to be a student. Eventually, I got tenure. I even became the program’s director.

Now, short of a crime of what they call moral turpitude, I’m probably here for life – my absence of academic credentials conveniently lost in the mists of time and circumstance, except, of course, in the eyes of the university’s keepers of the Calendar – and my mother.

But then, a couple of years ago, while searching for something else on the Internet, I stumbled across a listing for a relatively new limited-residency program at Goucher College, a venerable liberal arts college in Baltimore.

The focus of its Masters of Fine Arts degree in Creative Nonfiction was professional, and it boasted an impressive faculty of writers and teachers. Better, the program seemed to be targeted at people like me (except perhaps for the lack-of-degree part): those who already had jobs and lives they couldn’t abandon to go off and study full time for a couple of years.

I decided to apply.

Knowing I had to submit transcripts of my previous university experience as part of my application, I decided I’d better see for myself how bad my marks were. They were worse than I remembered. Not only had I not passed the courses I dutifully signed up for each year but the university eventually became so disillusioned by my lack of scholarship that it finally told me – in writing – not to darken its doors again.

For some reason – the academic statute of limitations, perhaps? – Goucher chose to look the other way rather than askance at all of this. I got in; the program turned out to be everything I was looking for, and more. Last Sunday, I got out, this time clutching my degree.

For the 11 MFA graduates, the commencement program listed our names and hometowns – Jerusalem, Israel; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Keizer, Oregon; Halifax, Nova Scotia – and previous degrees – BA, MS, JD, and, of course, BLANK.

I was simply: Stephen Kimber, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

But no longer. You can call me Stephen Kimber, MFA, now.

I can’t wait for the Calendar keepers to call.

Or to show my freshly minted degree to my now 82-year-old mother.

Perhaps there’s still hope for me yet, mum.