I’m at a writing conference, a small gathering of authors and educators. A place where, inevitability, the question comes up, “What do you do?” I use my stock reply. “I’m a retired English teacher.” I imagine what they see. A sixty-something, hippie-nerd. Long, wavy, brownish hair streaked with wiry strands of gray, wearing jeans and an Indian-print blouse. Tattoos. Because of my age, I believe they envision a life lived in academia. Maybe twenty or thirty years of teaching. The truth is, I’m an interloper.

My education doesn’t start until late in life. My oldest son, Jess, has a liver transplant at age thirteen. For years, I’m tied to hospital stays far from home. After his transplant and recovery, after my two other children reach their tweens, I decide to take one class at the community college. I’m afraid to try more than one, three-unit class. I’m terrified of failure. Over time, I take couple of classes each semester, and surprisingly, I accumulate sixty units and a 4.0 GPA. Even so, I don’t feel educated. The thought of moving towards a bachelor’s degree seems unrealistic for me—a mother, a stay-at-home spouse, a part-time dispensable worker.

Later, I go through a divorce. I’m sick of low paying jobs, so I begin taking classes at Cal State University Chico. I spend lots of time in the counselor’s office. Due to my fear of failure, I book weekly appointments with one of the school’s psychologists. It takes months for me to accept that I have the intellectual capacity to complete a degree.

“Getting through school may mean you might have to let some things go,” my counselor tells me. “Your need to accomplish perfection has, in some ways, imprisoned you. You can’t be perfect in ever endeavor you try.” I understand his words, but only see black and white: failure or perfection. There is no in between. Five years later, I graduate from Chico State Magna Cum Laud with a Bachelor of Science degree.

After I graduate, I live off-grid in a cabin in the Tahoe National Forest. I work as a teacher’s aide aide with high risk, mentally unstable youth in a lock-down facility. Few teachers will substitute in this setting. My boss encourages me to take the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST) for a substitute permit. Soon, I have a long-term substitute teaching position. I apply to graduate school to get a credential in English Language Arts. I get accepted.

For two years, work and school consume me. After an eight-hour workday, I make the three-hour, round-trip drive to Chapman University in Yuba City where I take classes. The classes are four hours long, three nights a week. In memory, it’s always snowing. Some nights, the snow’s so thick I can’t drive up the road to the cabin. I park my truck near the paved street at the bottom of the hill and hike to the house. When I walk through the door, greeted by my wolfdog, Chante, it’s midnight. The next morning, I will be up before dawn to prepare for the 7:00 a.m. arrival of my students.

Living off-grid and going to graduate school poses some challenges. There are solar lights, a propane refrigerator and stove, but there are no electrical outlets. I hand-write all my papers. When finished, I drive an hour to an internet cafe, plug in and type my work. Why am I doing this? I’m so fucking tired. I can’t keep up this pace. I doubt my academic abilities, doubt I can continue the non-stop work/school schedule, but I’m stubborn and refuse to quit.

Finally, at 49 years old, after eleven years of college, I receive my teaching credential in the mail. I break down, sobbing with relief. Still, I feel like an imposter, undeserving of titles like intellectual or academic.

I’m nine years old. My father’s teaching me how to fish. We’re in a rowboat on a lake. My father baits my hook. Shows me how to cast. The boat rocks. I cast my line, but instead of flicking the line smoothly over the water, it becomes a tangled mess; “You idiot. Can’t you do anything right?” His mantra. The song he sings to his wife and three daughters. Idiot, dumb broad, dumb blond-haired person—the words that are stuck in my head that play on and on in one continuous loop.

Kandi Maxwell is a creative nonfiction writer who lives in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. Her stories have been published in Hippocampus Magazine, KYSO Flash, The Door is Ajar, The RavensPerch among others and print anthologies. Her memoir, Snow After Fire, will be released in Spring 2023 by Legacy Book Press.