By Esty Loveing-Downes ’21 (Creative Writing) Illustrated by Rachel Bivens ’21 (Illustration)
In the summer of 2019, I enrolled in Ringling College of Art and Design’s Creative Writing program. People who found out I was starting college at age 42 scratched their heads. Didn’t I know I could write without going to college? Hadn’t I heard of online courses? Lots of people looked at me quizzically and asked, “What’re you going to do with that degree?”
My plan to get a creative writing degree while parenting five kids between the ages of 7 and 17 was bananas, but it was right for me at the time. In the fall of 2019, my kids went to school all day, my husband worked in the ER, and I was free to chase my dream of becoming an author and educator. For decades, I’d listened enviously when people mentioned classes they’d taken in college; finally, it was my turn.
“Everybody just be cool,” I told my family that August. “If this is going to work, I need everyone to please sit tight for the next four years.”
Seven months later, a week of Spring Break morphed into pandemic quarantine. Coronavirus had arrived in Sarasota. My kids came home and transitioned to remote learning, my own classes moved online, and life became decidedly uncool. The margins of time shrank. My kids logged onto iPads or computers, and I did, too, while my husband clocked in for shifts at the ER. We adopted a puppy, started TikTok accounts, and bought masks, just like everyone else.
Me and my people, July 2020
Over the summer break, I completed five more classes via remote instruction. And through the month of July, I worked as the Creative Writing teaching assistant in Ringling’s PreCollege program. As fall of 2020 approached, we had a family meeting and decided: Our kids would attend school in person and I would attend my 18 hours of Ringling courses remotely, in case everything went remote again.
Thanks to Ringling’s delayed fall 2020 start date, I was able to situate all five kids in their respective schools two weeks before my own classes began. For me, four creative writing classes, a studio requirement, and an art history course meant four days of the week would find me seated at the computer.
Five o’clock AM every weekday, my alarm chimed. I let the dogs out and started the day’s first cup of coffee. My husband joined me, or else arrived home after an ER shift, showering outdoors first to decontaminate. By 6 AM, all our kids were awake, too, looking for pancakes, or help packing lunches, or signatures on permission slips. At some point, I snuck away to dress and make sure my grays were all covered. Nothing like seeing yourself on camera for nine straight hours every weekday to make you conscious of those things. Some days, there was time for a walk on the treadmill. Other days, the Crock-Pot was set, or a casserole was assembled. Sometimes, it was a mad dash for forgotten backpacks and missing shoes. By 8:15 AM, everyone had been dropped off in their respective places, and I arrived back home in time to make a second cup of coffee, log onto my computer, and launch Zoom.
During class, cameras were on and classes functioned similarly to what I’d gotten used to during my classes on campus the previous year. Three of my classes were taught over Zoom, with all students meeting synchronously with the instructor. The other three were hybrid; the teacher and some students were together, physically distanced in a room on campus, while the rest of us participated remotely over Zoom. During those classes, our giant faces were projected onto a screen in the room where class was held, accompanied by our booming voices. The shared energy of students in one space was altered, but having experienced distanced learning in the spring, most of us were accustomed to the process.
There is incredible value in being physically on campus. Although I didn’t have that experience, my fall semester was still a success. I served on the masthead of Ringling’s student-led journal, Shift: A Journal of Literary Oddities, as Interviewing Manager, and saw two of my own pieces published in journals, too. I maintained my momentum, earned 18 credit hours, and landed an internship with a literary agency in New York. And while my college experience looks different than I’d imagined, my family is thriving, and I am grateful for the chance to continue pursuing my dream.