What Education Means to Me

Sarah’s Perspective

I guess I’d say I’m the luckiest of recipients of what, in its most ideal form, education is meant to do. Education deserves the recognition, not me, for facilitating my growth into a person of (some decent level, I hope) reason, compassion, curiosity, and purpose. It challenged me to think for myself and to ignore and transcend the implicit limitations of what girls born in the baby boomer years were supposed to aspire to. It fed my desire to be as fiercely independent and to be as intimately connected to others as possible, and to be and do both at the same time. It made me more immune to the simplistic dichotomies and reductionist thinking that feed stereotypes and a reliance on the divisions they create to frame one’s thinking about life and its possibilities. It insisted I face and challenge my fears and my prejudices, rather than find rationales that further entrenched them. It has made it easier and more natural for me to experience curiosity, love and appreciation for what I don’t readily understand. It has made me feel bigger and more empowered in an awesome, beautiful and often scary world that constantly reminds me how small I am. I am so conscious of the fact that education did these things for me. And I am so grateful for its influence not only in my life, but in the lives of the people I love, who have experienced its wonder right in front of my eyes.

Here’s what it’s not to me. I hate the fact that our current understanding of education’s role in our lives is associated with class or political elitism or reduced to a transactional set of tasks, a means-to-an-end. The “What’s in it for me?” mentality that drives our contemporary engagement in education suggests that education is something we do, something we get through, in order to achieve some singularly practical reward — career, status, wealth — at the other end. For me, the process of engaging in education has been its reward. Like Plato’s Republic, I am still emerging from the cave, seeking the light; it’s a gift that never ends giving, even when schooling is over.

Growing up as a girl in Maine in the 60s and 70s, in a family of humble financial means, my earliest memories of my education — aside from flashbacks to patent leather shoes, ruffled white ankle socks, mandatory skirts for girls and old school marms with tight white buns in public elementary school (yes, I am that old) — evoke a visceral sense of anxiety and confusion. As part of an experimental period in public education, I was “educated” by worksheets, self-directed learning and passive teacher guidance in large, mixed-grade classrooms where four or five teachers would sit together in the middle of the room chatting and sipping coffee. This shy daughter of a clergyman was never confident enough to impose herself on the coffee klatch. So I remained confused and anxious, dreading school, until my dad changed everything to give his children the gift of accessing a fully funded education at a boarding school in Rhode Island.

I had never been to Rhode Island (I had really hardly been out of Maine) and I had no idea what a boarding school was when I walked into my first day of classes with my polyester matching outfit from the new franchise K-mart. When I looked around, I was sure that I had been dropped on Mars rather than into a new school. In addition to the surreal social shock that really never dissipated, I was about to get my butt kicked in the classroom. I mean a serious ass kicking as I was faced with having to make up for the huge academic skills and content holes I brought with me from my Maine public elementary and middle school education. There were many tortured, tearful days over those first couple of years. Then the light went on. Going into my junior year of high school, I must have acquired the academic skills I had been lacking enough so that the learning could begin. As soon as I could really engage the content I was meant to be learning, I started to love school — well, I loved the learning (and athletics) part of school, anyway. The rest I could have done without.

When it came time to go to college, my upbringing and socio-economic class probably did a lot to protect me from all the anxiety my peers at the time and kids today experience around where they will go to college. I still at the time didn’t even recognize names of colleges (outside of Maine state universities and my dad’s alma mater — my mom’s side of the family were not college educated). And I certainly didn’t understand my peers’ assumption that certain colleges would magically create a future life of happiness, status, and success. I was just psyched that I was going to college. My anxiety was instead about college affordability; the only factor driving my decision about where I would go to college was that offer of enough financial aid.

I was privileged to return to the comfort of my Maine surroundings in a college that, along with a robust work-study package, came pretty close to fully funding my undergraduate education. After stumbling and struggling through the transitional phase of finding my footing as an independent young adult, I threw myself into engaging with the ideas and complexities of our world that became education to me and that continue to feed me today. I can still feel the fleeting midday sun coming through the windows, warming me in my favorite space in the basement of a library packed in snow on a typical freezing winter day in central Maine. I loved getting lost in reading, thinking, writing, and in engaging with professors who pushed me to change the way I saw the world, making me more open to and more excited to experience discovery for all the years to come.

My formal education continued in various forms and over many years while I was also a mom and a full-time working professional. People would ask me how I could “do it all” — “smoke and mirrors,” I would say, and while I didn’t sleep much those days, more education was never a burden. In fact, it was an excuse to do what I love. Now with my formal education behind me, I try to find the chance to learn, to expand and challenge myself whenever I can. Whether it’s my daily reading of various newspapers to stay engaged in current events, my love of a good history or philosophy book, or taking a French course to get my previous fluent level of the language back up to speed, I have education to thank for opening me to the wonder of being a person. My only wish is that my access to this experience of education was available to every human being, regardless of circumstance.

About The Author

Sarah McMillan, Ed.D.