It is never too late to learn

By Matthew Gagnon

We all live with regrets, even those of us who like to claim that we don’t. Sometimes it is a failed relationship or a career mistake, but we all have them. My biggest regret has always been my ambivalent attitude about school. 

Growing up I didn’t like school. I’m a fairly social person, and was a typical classroom disruption. I was always talking to my friends, making jokes at inappropriate times and being distracted by things that captured my ever-fleeting attention. 

My disorderly school experience went beyond this, though. I have never particularly been fond of being told what to do, and the traditional education system is about doing as you are told. As a kid, I was arrogant, immature and unwilling to play along with what I was expected to do. I just didn’t want to cooperate with what I considered to be (at the time) menial, pointless tasks.

Fortunately for me, I did have some very special and patient teachers along the way — Mr. Jenkins, Mrs. Hastings, Mr. Haggen (now a state representative), Mr. and Mrs. King, Ms. Ward and many others — who seemed to find a way to get through to me on occasion. I wish I had the column space to list them all, particularly since it is Teacher Appreciation Week. Suffice it to say, though, that these wonderful people were responsible for routinely shocking me out of my educational malaise. Eventually, as I reached high school, I settled into being a halfway-decent student, but I still had a bad habit of trying hard in the subjects I actually cared about and completely checking out mentally for those that I didn’t.

This personality flaw really haunted me once I got to college, where more than half of the classes you have to take are unrelated to your chosen field of study. If I’m being honest, my undergraduate transcript is a bit of a mess, a mix of respectable and even good grades for the classes within my major and minor (both of which I cared about), and often embarrassing grades outside of them (which I did not). 

As I moved into my late 20s and early 30s and started to mature, I began to grapple with just how foolish I had been, and what a mistake I had made. Somewhere along the way I admitted to myself that I had cheated myself by not taking my education seriously. 

Thankfully, I found career success despite this personal failing, and as I grew older, I started to think about this one big regret of mine. When I turned 40, I decided that I wanted to return to school, and eventually work toward getting a master’s degree. But I didn’t just want to achieve that goal, I wanted to devote myself to learning the right way, for no other reason than for the sake of expanding my horizons.

I took a fairly big risk, too, by picking a degree I did not have any formal academic training in. My undergraduate degree was in political science with a minor in history, but I was accepted into a master’s program in economics at George Mason University. 

I was certainly educated enough in economic concepts, but I was wholly unprepared for this program, if I’m being honest. My first class was “mathematical economics,” which made heavy use of calculus, which I hadn’t done in more than 20 years. I will admit in the first several weeks, I was close to quitting because I felt so lost. My dread only increased when I realized that the entire program was based around advanced math and statistics, all of which were well over my head in the beginning. 

Perhaps the hardest part of going back to school, though, was balancing the demands of heavy-duty learning with working multiple jobs, being present for my family and continuing to be a part of my community.

But a funny thing happened, along the way. I didn’t quit, and put in the work. I plugged away. Soon, I began to realize that the material I didn’t understand began to become understandable. The fear and uncertainty started to melt away, and was replaced by confidence and pride as real, genuine accomplishments began to pile up. More importantly, real learning piled up. 

I just finished my final class last weekend, receiving an A in every single class but one (which was an A minus), and as you read this column I am standing in Fairfax, Virginia, at the George Mason commencement, having completed the program. It is never too late, and regrets don’t have to last forever.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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