The morning of New Year’s Eve, 1981, was the morning I entered the MTC preparatory to serving in the now-defunct Switzerland Geneva Mission. A busy day. Just before 10:00 p.m., some of us gathered in the dormitory’s hallway, wished each other a Happy New Year, and dutifully went to bed on schedule, obedient to mission rules.
Eighteen months later, and feeling at least eighteen years older, I returned home. A week after that, a lawyer I had briefly worked for as a Kelly Girl temp called and asked me to come back to work for him. I still choke up a little, remembering that – I was despised and ill treated by my mission president, but this man, a devout Catholic, kept track of my mission schedule and called the very day he thought I might be back in town. That evidence of appreciation helped restore a sense of self-worth badly eroded in the mission. (Thank you, Mr. B.)
Six months after that, I had saved enough money to move to Provo and rent a dilapidated apartment, worse than any hole I had lived in as a missionary. But it was Provo. Even though I didn’t have the money yet to go back to school, at least I was in the shadow of BYU, in the neighborhood and ready to seize any chance to go back to school.
I’m still waiting. I never got back.
I worked and saved what I could for three years; then the man I was working for retired. I thought I had enough in the bank to be able to go to school for at least a semester before I had to find another job. (I still don’t understand how anyone manages to do both at the same time. I tried to work while I was going to school before the mission, and tried to go to school while working after the mission, and failed at both.)
So, I took my eager and hopeful self down to BYU to ask a counselor what I needed to do to get back into school. No more than 15 minutes later, I left the Smoot Building and stumbled back to my car, stunned and with all my hopes for the future a shambles.
That counselor advised me to save my application fee. I wouldn’t be readmitted, despite a rather stellar pre-mission academic record. “BYU is for those of marriageable age,” he told me. “LDS parents who have paid their tithing have a right to send their children to BYU to be married.” BYU wouldn’t waste a slot on my post-marriageable 27-year-old self. He wouldn’t advise me even to try.
Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. That is what he told me. Of course I know now the 213 or so things wrong with what he said, and with my believing him. You don’t need to list them for me. But you might remember what an emotional wreck I was after my mission, how utterly worthless I felt. And it might help to know how unsophisticated I was when it came to university matters: No high school counselor had ever spoken to me about going to college; I didn’t know until long after I was out of school that that was the very purpose of a high school guidance office. My entire college planning had taken place in the kitchen as I helped my mother dish up supper one evening in my senior year. “Mom, will I be able to go to college?” “We don’t have the money, sweetheart.” “Oh. That’s okay.”
So, I believed that BYU counselor. I didn’t know not to believe him, and I didn’t have anyone to tell me otherwise. I found another job in another law office, and went on working so that I could pay the rent so I would have a place to sleep so I could get up and go to work so I could pay the rent so I would have a place to sleep.
Somewhere in those years (I remember when and why, but that’s another story), I read C.S. Lewis’s essay “Learning in War-Time,” advice to young men not to prematurely abandon their studies in anticipation of being called into the military service. I read it again and again, and still can recite long swaths of it. The lines that most stood out for me – the lines that I literally embroidered on a pillow! – were these:
“The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.”
With that counsel constantly before me, I read. And read. And read. And eventually prepared myself to do something more than work to live to work to live. Nobody appreciates more than I do what I’ve missed by not having the guidance that can come from a formal education, and if I could, I would go back to school tomorrow … most definitely not at BYU, but somewhere. At least I didn’t wait for favourable conditions that never came.
New Year’s is the traditional time for thinking about self improvements. Even when you consciously choose not to make formal resolutions, it’s hard to avoid such reflections today. If there is something you want to change in your life, do it. Start now, while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.