Getting a late start

What does it mean that I “got a late start?”

I ‘m told that I was bright as a child, but nothing I did well lent itself to any particular discipline. I read a lot about everything, I liked music, I liked to draw. I dabbled in computers a little bit. In general, I read everything I could get my hands on, which often led into other interests, but mostly just led to more reading.

This presented something of a vocational dilemma. Both of my parents, while intelligent, are very practical and they didn’t quite see how any of what I did was going to ever make me any money unless I got on a game show. They nonetheless more or less stayed out of my way, while encouraging me to go after sports, since athletes were always the ones you heard about getting big scholarships when college rolled around.

Well, instead of going into sports, when high school came, I got into theatre and the school paper. Again, not-totally-unjustified visions of financial ruin danced through my parents’ heads.

I applied to one college, Western Washington University, and got in. It was a not-particularly-well-funded state liberal arts university, but I had enough of a scholarship that, with in-state tuition, it would be workable, in theory. I applied figuring I’d go for a theatre degree; by the time the first day of classes rolled around, I had been convinced I wanted to be an opera singer, and declared myself a music major.

Midway through my junior year, I dropped out. I won’t go into the whole torturous story here; suffice it to say that various pressures—familial, financial, vocational, educational, and so on—combined to make it clear that this was not the right time for me to be beating my head against a brick wall and taking on massive debt for the privilege.

I continued to study voice privately, however, and I took a job in the software industry (far easier to do in those days for somebody with no formal experience and no degree than it would be today, I assure you) which guaranteed I wouldn’t have to wait tables. Life went on for few years; I became a good enough young tenor to do some interesting gigs around the Seattle area, I got married, and so on. For awhile I took a class a quarter at a local community college, figuring I’d eventually go back to school full-time, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what the circumstances would be. I thought I’d perhaps enter an opera company’s young artist program before going back to school.

At age 26, it became clear that in order to get to the next step of an operatic career, I needed to go back to school, and I needed to go someplace where I would the kind of performing opportunities I wouldn’t have elsewhere—someplace like Indiana University. Well, as my wife and I discussed, instead of someplace like Indiana University, how about Indiana University? So, we packed up, left our safe little life in the Pacific Northwest and headed off for an adventure in the Midwest (well aware that to many, that expression is internally contradictory). I was sitting in undergraduate theory classes again before I was 27, and I graduated shortly after turning 29, it having taken me eleven years to finish a four year degree.

Again, without going into clinical detail, I’ll simply say that my experience finishing my Vocal Performance degree made it clear to me that opera was the very last field in the world in which I wanted a career, whatever I had thought over the previous eleven years notwithstanding. The problem was simple: I wasn’t good enough to have the kind of career that would allow me to have the kind of life I wanted, and I wasn’t ever going to be good enough, despite my teachers’ best efforts—the truth was, I didn’t want it badly enough. I had too many other interests which I found stimulating to be able to focus every effort on becoming a better operatic performer. I still compulsively read everything that crossed my path, and I really was perfectly happy doing that in a way I never was performing. As it worked out, the successes I had as an undergraduate were more as a scholar and a publisher than a performer.

The other factor at play was that my wife had started grad school in her own field at IU, and we had several years left before that would be done.

So what to do? Given my other interests, I had discussions with faculty members in the School of Music about musicology and choral conducting, but the bottom line was the same—love to have you, they told me, but we don’t have any funding at the Masters level, and if you come in as a Masters-level student, it’ll harm your chances of getting funding as a PhD student. Not being willing to go into an indefinite amount of debt for an indefinite amount of time, that canned those ideas. Seminary was considered, strongly so, but ultimately dismissed, for a variety of reasons.

Medieval history came up as an option; a faculty member from whom I was taking a class told me she thought I’d be a good fit, that surely funding could be worked out, and encouraged me to apply. However, as my application worked its way up the ranks, a dealbreaker emerged: I had no documentable background in the field, whatever my recommendations might say about me, and I had no experience in the languages which were vital to a medievalist—Greek and Latin, at least. I had had a year apiece of college-level French, German, and Italian, but that meant nothing to anybody. As a result, that door was closed. The practical piece of advice I was given was, plain and simple, if this was what I wanted to do, I needed to get these languages under my belt and more importantly, on my transcript.

The following fall I started life as a part-time, non-matriculated student venturing into Attic Greek for the first time, shortly before turning 30. At 31, I’m now in my second year of Greek, I’ve had a year of Latin and will start my second next semester, and I’m also in my first year of Syriac. I’ve also taken some seminars, gotten some good papers out of the deal, as well as some good relationships with faculty members, and where I am presently headed is the Masters degree in Religious Studies here at IU. My application is complete—with any luck, I will hear something concrete in January or February.

All of this is to say, it would appear that all the reading I did as a child did in fact point to a way I could support myself. As a first-generation college graduate, however, there was really no way for my parents to know that or have any idea how to cultivate it. I have to say, I feel sometimes that at 31 I’m where I should have been at 21. Certainly it would have been nice if I could have started Latin and/or Greek fifteen years ago, but the truth of the matter is that I have no idea how I would have done that in the schools available to me in the suburbs of Seattle. I’ve really had to stumble along and find my own way, and it’s taken me down some paths on which I stayed perhaps longer than I should have, but at least nothing has been wasted, I don’t think. I’m getting a late start, no question about it, but hopefully, better late than never.

With any luck, I may actually be able to get my first job before I’m 40, God willing.

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5 Responses to “Getting a late start”


  1. 1 rightwingprof 7 May 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Syriac? What department there is teaching Syriac? Surely not Middle Eastern Studies.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 7 May 2009 at 12:33 pm

      Nope — Religious Studies offers both Syriac and Coptic, as well as (I think) Classical Arabic from time to time.

  2. 3 rightwingprof 7 May 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Religious Studies? Hmm, okay. Why would they offer Arabic though? Surely, ME Studies still teaches Arabic, don’t they?

    • 4 Richard Barrett 7 May 2009 at 12:43 pm

      ME teaches Modern Arabic. Classical Arabic is taught by Religious Studies because there’s an Islam specialist or two on the faculty. (I think.)


  1. 1 Gifted education « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 7 May 2009 at 11:03 am

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