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My first day of school. August, 2018.

I am 38 years old, and it is my first day as a student in a formal educational setting. I graduated from homeschool high school 20 years ago, and today I’m a college student for the first time, fulfilling a dream that I didn’t think I was ever going to pursue. My first class is Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, a major I’ve chosen because I couldn’t come up with anything I felt more ignorant about. I sit toward the back of the room, acutely aware of my age, and my ignorance, and the transgressive nature of the choice I have made to be here in this moment, in this class. The professor starts lecture with a quote from a feminist whose name I’ve heard only in the context of my father accusing my grandmother of trying to pollute his daughters with liberal teachings. Fifteen minutes into the class, I become aware that I’m having trouble breathing. My heart is racing, my chest tight. I am trying to listen to the teacher, who is gently introducing the idea of feminism, and gender diversity and some other concept that I cannot process at all because I can. Not. Breathe. My head is a jumble of thoughts: phrases from the Biblical Womanhood books I studied in high school, snippets from sermons, the words of the pro-family lobbyist who gave us a lecture about why attending public college is dangerous, especially for women. My father’s voice, my father’s voice, my father’s voice. I focus on breathing slowly and deeply and try to bring myself back into the room. I realize I am panicking because this is a place I am not allowed to be. In this classroom as a woman, in this classroom where they are teaching feminism, in college with no plan of what I’ll do with whatever degree I end up getting. This is not how I’m allowed to do life, but it is how I’m choosing to do it. Breathe. See the room. Know that you’re allowed to choose to be here.

I remember the moment, last year, when I looked at my 23 year old step-son who was struggling with his college classes and said, “I know this is hard, but at least you get to go to college. I never got that chance,” and then unexpectedly burst into tears. I remember my husband holding me while I cried, and then pulling away so he could look directly at me and say, “If you want to be a person who has gone to college, then you should go.” I still can’t breathe, and I consider sneaking out of the class, afraid the students on both sides of me will sense my panic and be distracted. The teacher is quoting another forbidden feminist. Breathe. Remind yourself you’re safe. Remember: anyone can find out that you’re in this school, in this class, learning this thing, and no one can do anything about it. You’re not going to get caught here and be in trouble. You’re safe.

I make it to the end of class, and bolt to my car. I’m crying so hard on the drive home that I have to pull over until I’m no longer sobbing. I’m not sure I can do this; maybe I started too big, pushed too hard. I could pick a safer major. I could put off WGST classes until next year. I could wait until it feels safer for people to find out what I'm studying.

But I know I won’t do any of those things, because this is what I want. And this is who I want to be. I don’t yet have the words to put around the terror created by a lifetime of being subject to small-town, evangelical Christian surveillance or the “irrational” fear of being “caught out” engaging in a transgressive activity like being a woman in college, even as an adult. But I know that I am doing a hard thing, being in this college, in this major, in this class, and I know I can do this hard thing. I’m clutching my steering wheel, sobs beginning to slow, listening to rain beat against the windshield. I hadn’t realized it was raining. I didn’t know I would be this afraid. I know I’m going to be okay.

I dig a napkin out of the glove box and blow my nose. I rub my hands across my eyes, and take a slow, deep breath, feeling calmness in my body, finally. I check for cars, signal, and pull back onto the road. The rain slacks off, stops. I top the next hill to find the golden-magic light of the sun after an afternoon rain flowing over the fields on all sides of me. Straight ahead, a beautiful, clear, crisp rainbow arches across the sky. I burst out laughing, or maybe it’s a lingering sob. Maybe it’s both.

I know I’m going to be okay.

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