A Senior Woman with a Freshman Mind
Years ago, in my junior year of college as I sat in my Art History class on the first night, I witnessed an elderly woman sitting on the far side of the room intentionally spacing herself a small distance from the rest of the class. I could tell she was apprehensive. She wasn’t talking to anyone, simply reading a small book she had brought with her before class began. When the professor arrived, he introduced himself, and then he had us go around the room to do the same. When he reached the older woman, she told a short story of how she had finished high school and always wanted to go to college. Life got in the way, she got married, had children and before she knew it, her fate had been sealed as a lifelong mother, and that would be her claim to fame from then on. She had a few hobbies as I remember, but the idea of getting a college degree was something she could never let go of in her mind. Finally, around the age of 67 (if my memory is correct) she decided to apply. And, this was her first class, in her first semester of college, in her entire life.
Now, ideally, I should have been marveling at her perseverance or her determination to not let anything prevent her from achieving this dream. However, as a somewhat younger man myself, all I could think of was “why?” Why would someone that age want to endure the struggles and challenges of getting a degree when obviously they would never use it for a job? I simply couldn’t fathom learning for the sake of learning. It wasn’t a part of my vocabulary then.
Fast forward to today, and now I can understand her inspiration. I’m not saying I want to go back through this experience all over again at my age, but I can see how the thought of being around young people, hearing different perspectives, learning new technologies and ideas, and understanding the world in a way you didn’t before would be intriguing.
When we’re young, aside from enjoying every moment in the present, we look forward to the day we no longer have homework, quizzes, tests, term papers and late-night cram sessions. We certainly don’t see ourselves ever needing to be in this situation again. After all, that’s when life truly begins, after college graduation.
In reality, though, we never stop learning. The process by which we learn may take different forms, but the result is the same. This grand lady understood this when the rest of us didn’t. She participated in the class from that night on in a very rewarding way. She had lots to offer with her experiences, travels and family history to bring thoughtful commentary on the artwork we studied. Her presence and contributions began to affect the rest of us. Participation grew, conversations sprang out of her comments and the result of the dialog dispersed allowed us to remember certain pieces of art and periods that, quite frankly, I’m not sure we would have otherwise. She actually made “us” smarter. We never told her this, of course. I don’t know why; blame it on youthful arrogance, perhaps.
She began that first night apprehensive, a bit nervous and unsure of herself, but as the semester progressed, she became the most popular student in the class. She made us comfortable. She asked questions we were reluctant to ask. She opened our minds to a perspective we didn’t have before. And, her actions led us to participate in a way that made the class one of the most memorable ones I ever took.
The lesson she taught us all was lifelong learning is not some marketing cliché, it’s real. The more we read and open our minds to the world around us, the better we become as thinkers, decision makers, citizens, parents and, most certainly, grandparents. It keeps our minds sharp; it makes our conversations more interesting, and as long as we remember to be respectful of others’ opinions and beliefs, it makes us more fun to be around, even for the younger folks.
So, whatever your interest, continue to pursue it, learn as much as you can and don’t let dreams die as long as you’re still above ground. You may not use this newfound information and knowledge for traditional purposes (i.e., job) but that doesn’t diminish what it can do for the rest of your life.
Upon finishing my master’s degree four years later, she was a part of my overall graduating class. I remember fondly her participating in that day. She had lots of family around her, including grandkids, supporting her every step of the way. I know she was as happy and proud as we were, and now, she had even more great stories to tell.
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