“I refuse to stay on this farm so that you boys can come home once a year to hunt pheasants and pay a duty call on poor old mom,” I defensively told two of my sons gathered to protest the move from the farm in Payson, Utah, back to Provo. “I’m going to be so busy when I’m old that you’re going to have to make an appointment to see me.” These words were backed up mostly by bravado, but the impetus behind them had been put in motion years before by my sister-in-law, Ardell DeHart.

Her comment had not come on a day when I knew that being a wife and a mother makes “the best of all possible worlds” (Voltaire, Candide, trs. Lowell Bair, ed. Alex Szogyi, New York: Bantam Books, 1962, p. 49). Instead, it was a day when six of my own eight children and Ardell’s four were demolishing the living room in a tug-of-war; turning to me, she said with resolve, “Let’s go back to school and get our degrees.”

“Of course,” I replied. “Why not?” I could go along with her joke. The only difference between me and any other coed would be a husband who commuted between a farm in Payson and a foremanship at Geneva Steel Plant in Provo; five sons and three daughters; fifteen hundred quarts of fruit to be bottled each summer; eighteen sheets, ten pillow cases, forty-two shirts, and twenty-one dresses to be ironed each week; a bushel-basket of darning; and a Primary presidency. But she wasn’t joking: some years later she returned to school, got her degree, and began a notable career in education. That career was indeed a boon when her husband died suddenly when he was only fifty-eight. She has always been my mentor.

On that day long ago, my brain recorded and filed the phrase, “Let’s go back to school and get our degrees.” When I graduated from high school, there was talk of a scholarship to Brigham Young University; however, my husband-to-be had waited for me to finish high school, and I was sure that he would not mark time while I trod the halls of ivy. We were married in the fall after my high school graduation. When our children started school, the first day of every new school year gouged the yearning within me to discover what I had missed by not going on to college.

Like me, many women face related kinds of issues. In my own case, I found that I could do both—but at different periods in my life. It was merely a matter of timing. And because my experience was so rewarding, I tell my own daughters to be the best mothers and homemakers that they know how to be for the next twenty-five years—and to be happy while they’re at it; then they can resume a secondary career if they want to.

Dr. Soren Cox once said in a class that a person usually needs to “retool” three times during his lifetime in order to cope with changing conditions. I didn’t know the word for it when I faced my sons before returning to school, but that word fit perfectly when I heard it: it was time for me to “retool.”

In 1961 I enrolled at Brigham Young University along with three of my sons: our oldest, Guy, was a senior; Dennis, just back from a mission in the Netherlands, was a sophomore; and Craig and I were freshmen. In the spring of that year President Ernest L. Wilkinson presented each of us with a plaque during an assembly for having the most members in one family attending the “Y.”

Craig had been a football player in high school, and although I felt proud in my blue and white freshman beanie trying to keep up with his six-foot-five stride, I told him to go along with his friends during orientation week and I would get lost in the crowd. “No, I’d rather stay with you,” he replied. And he just grinned when we passed his football pals and they jeered, “Yeh, yeh! Old DeHart has to have mama bring him to the big school.” The nice thing was that somehow I was always surrounded by a bevy of giggling freshmen girls who were “just dying to meet me,” even though their eyes were always on the six-foot level beside me.

I had a wonderful relationship with those girls. I could giggle with them, discuss our assignments, have serious intellectual exchanges, or change my image entirely and become a substitute mother figure. When I wore the classmate face, I was sometimes startled as the girls and I applied lipstick side by side before the mirrors; the stubborn gray hairs and life-worn creases seemed somehow strange among all this enthusiasm—but my spirits were as high as anybody’s.

The boys didn’t lock me out either. I remember one inspiring semester in French Literature. The professor paired off the class for the whole term, and the teams presented dramatic skits in French. The brightest boy in the class walked up and asked, “Mrs. DeHart, will you be my partner for the term? I don’t think my wife would object to you.”

Craig hated college until we had Book of Mormon 112 together second semester and he out-ranked me. In his free period just before class, he studied like a fury to beat me on assignments and examinations. When his grade was higher than mine, his interest in school increased each time he told someone that he had beaten mom.

In the evenings all of us sat around the old dining room table doing our lessons, exchanging news, and comparing notes. In their turn we were joined by our fourth son, Brian, and then the girls, Cathie and Lani. Later, when I was teaching English at Provo High School, I had the fun of having our daughter, Hali, and our son, Hugh, in my classes: Hali for her senior year, and Hugh for both his junior and senior years.

Hali thought that it was a kick to have her mother for a teacher. On the first day I asked the students to introduce themselves, and then I turned to Hali and asked her to introduce the teacher. She faced the class and grinned, “This is Mrs. DeHart, my mother, who has eight wonderful children of whom I am the best.”

Hugh was different. He couldn’t get used to being the butt of my homely illustrations. The first six months he wouldn’t lift his eyes to meet mine during lecture times, and he never did live down the day when I slipped and called him “Hughie.” But during his farewell speech before he left on his mission, my eyes welled tears when he said that he had had the privilege of having his mother for his English teacher.

Dennis and I received our bachelor’s degrees together. He had been a sophomore when we entered together, but while he worked summers, I went to school and finished the four years in three. During those three years he and I had studied together every morning from 4:00 A.M. to 6:30, he in his old green terrycloth robe, and I in his dad’s old white one. We wore the arms of the sofa and the chair right down to the horse-hair stuffing. We didn’t converse, but the camaraderie was almost tangible during those early morning hours.

The closeness my children and I felt during their years in school has been the most rewarding relationship that I can recall, and it would not have happened if I had not started over and “retooled” my life. The horizons that opened to me because of the five years I spent in college and the years I spent as a teacher helped me be a better mother. It was as if doors were opened and curtains were parted in my mind: I found my place in time and space. I felt like Stephen Dedalus when he wrote in the fly leaf of his geography: “Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes Wood College, Sallins, County Kildaire, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe,” or as Stephen’s classmate Fleming interpreted it: “Stephen Dedalus is my name,/ Ireland is my nation./ Clongowes is my dwellingeplace/ And heaven my expectation.” (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, New York: Viking Press, 1963, p. 16)

College was not all sunshine and light, however. In my first year all freshmen had to take physical examinations; this cleared all able-bodied candidates for the four-semester physical education requirement. I had had major surgery in June, so I was sure I would not have to waste any of my precious time on physical ed. But to my amazement the fledgling doctor thumped me and said, “What a nasty scar,” and put me down for full physical activity.

“Now look here, young man,” I protested, “I just got that scar three months ago.”

“Full physical activity,” he repeated to his recording secretary.

I still had an appeal, however. If my family physician would just write a note saying that I was old and incapacitated, I could escape those four semesters of physical education and devote them to literature instead. My chagrin was overwhelming when my own doctor handed me back my slip with his affirmation of “full physical activity.” “Virginia,” he said, “the physical ed you take in school will be the only time that you won’t be studying. You’ll live through it.”

Oh, I’d live through it all right, but would I get a grade out of it? I really had to be enthusiastic in that class: the first one on the gym floor in full, impeccably pressed uniform, the last one to leave, the only student never absent for any cause. The girls were kind as I lumbered through the calisthenics, and I did a tolerable job on jumping the rope, but when I took to the trampoline for the first time, the girls screamed their delight, and even the instructor came to watch the fun and grinned sideways in her effort to keep a straight face.

Then I discovered a remedial gym class. I had to demonstrate there, too: the perfect example of someone without any chest muscles; only my back muscles had been developed from bending over too many sinks too many times. What really set me off in that class was the requirement that all members had to wear leotards, “the better to see your muscles with, my dear.” They finally had to get the head of the department down to talk me into that one.

“There are some things that are just not worth a diploma,” I remonstrated.

“But we can’t give you preferential treatment here,” he countered. “This is a remedial class to begin with.”

My mouth watered for that diploma, so I took two semesters of that remedial class—in leotards.

Still I do believe that most of the instructors and professors did give me a handicap because of my age, although my second semester English teacher called me into her office once, like any other freshman, and asked me if I had plagiarized a paper. A teacher once gave me an A on a paper that had seven spelling errors. I would have failed one of my own students for the same mistakes. He must have realized that I had been up half the night typing that paper, that typing was not one of the things in which I excelled, and that I had rushed into class clutching the paper, with no time left to proofread it.

It was my religion teacher who gave me the first inkling that a middle-aged student has a fighting chance in college. The occasion was my first encounter with a final examination. In those days the semester ended in the last weeks of January. I climbed the stairs to the upper campus in the dark of a six-thirty morning. The fog rolling around the buildings and dulling the lamp lights matched the whirling confusion in my mind. I was appalled when I read through the questions on the examination. No one could possibly be expected to recall the details asked for on that test. When Dr. Wilford Smith walked into the room to gather up the papers, I looked up and numbly muttered, “I should stay home among my pots and pans where I know what I’m doing.”

He looked at me quizzically and replied, “You know what you are doing here. Most of my ‘older’ students do very well when they return to school.” He smiled reassuringly, and I always tried to remember his words when I faced another final.

Nonetheless, when it was time to take the oral examination for my master’s degree some years later, nothing seemed to help the tightness in my throat and the agony in my mind. As I stalled for time in my dressing before I left to face that committee of professors gathered around the long polished table, I silently prayed that if I were going to die within the next few weeks, I wanted it to be now before I had to take that examination.

I also have been able to be a grandmother as well as a student and a teacher. I have helped in some way during the confinements for all twenty-eight of the grandchildren. I was taking a physics class from Dr. Wayne B. Hales when Guy and Lore’s second boy was born. I was tending the first child and when I explained why I would be absent from class for a week, Dr. Hales said, “Why don’t you bring the little fellow to class with you?” Kurt was probably the youngest science student that the “Y” has ever unofficially had.

I had just started to teach at Provo High School when in October I received a call from Craig in Oregon that his wife, Jeannie, was in labor with their second Child and could I come. It was a Saturday and I couldn’t reach the principal or the assistant principal, but I did get a substitute teacher and called the dean of women to tell her that I was leaving for Portland. I arrived before the baby was born.

My “retooling” period did not seem to interfere with my church activities. I was always a teacher in one auxiliary or another, and in May of the year that I was preparing for my oral examination and finishing my thesis for my master’s degree, President Roy W. Doxey asked me to be the stake YWMIA president.

During my tenure, the YWMIA inaugurated the wilderness-type camping program for the girls of the Church, and I was on the committee to purchase primitive land for the nine stakes in Provo. That calling and accompanying camping experiences did much to enhance my relationship with my three daughters. I particularly remember a closeness between Cathie and me one day as we pulled our sled, packed with our gear, up the road from Sundance in Provo Canyon to the lodge area. I realized as we lay under a pine tree that night with the snowflakes brushing our faces that these adventures with my daughters would never have taken place if I had not taken the opportunity to become the stake YW president.

Both my husband and I “retooled” again when we were called as ordinance workers in the Provo Temple. For two years I did two jobs: working at the temple and teaching English composition at BYU, where I had gone after leaving my position at Provo High School. Finally I had to make a choice. Since Louis and I were together at the temple, I gave up teaching, although my heart aches sometimes to be back with those select young people who still invite me to their weddings and bring their babies to see me.

When we were ordained as temple workers the children remarked, “We’ll never get to see you now; you’ll be too busy.” I recalled that once I had told them that they would have to make an appointment to see me in my old age, and the time had come. And what a fulfilling appointment we have! Each Monday night we have one family of children at home for family home evening. I cook the dinner and the children and grandchildren present the program afterward. When the whole family of forty-five get together there isn’t much time for me to get to talk to anyone individually, but at these family home evenings Louis and I can take time with each grandchild.

Going back to school was a glorious experience for me: it gave me vistas in learning beyond my ken; I had a great rapport with the other students; I was brought closer to my older children; and because of my education I was able not only to teach my own younger children but also to teach hundreds of other young people whom I love as my own. I felt better prepared to take positions in the Church, positions which gave me not only the opportunity to share adventures with my daughters, but also to serve the whole community. Most of all, my life is so full that I hope none of my children feels the obligation to provide companionship and entertainment for a bored parent.

Even so, there are two ingredients necessary for a “retooling” beyond the desire and the determination: an understanding husband and a cooperating family. I have had both.

Illustrated by Howard Post

Show References

  • Virginia M. DeHart, mother of eight children, serves as food preparation specialist in the Provo Utah Stake Relief Society, and is an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple.