“Learning new things keeps you young,” may be an older person’s insight, but it is a young feeling. New shoes, a fresh haircut, reading about job opportunities I’ll never take are things that keep me young. But more than all of those is going to school, whether I am teaching or attending.
The last time I taught undergraduates was a great workout for both body and mind. The campus, full of hills and steps to climb, worked the legs. The rest of me was engaged by my students in so many ways.
They came into my 2:40 class all stocked up with sweet and salty snacks and containers of coffee, and Snapple and soda and water, as if class were a double feature. They sometimes had startling appearances, with tattoos and green hair and creatively odd get-ups. I loved the way they defied the weather. As soon as the temperature snuck up past, say, 30 degrees, campus would be dotted with kids dressed for spring. I’d be there, shivering, bundled up to my ears in down coat and boots, and someone would come bouncing into class in shorts, and just a sweatshirt for outerwear. Cool. Young. Impatient. Hopeful.
While they learned, I learned. Finding ways to get their attention and break into their cultural context was a bitch, because what they knew was so different from what I knew; at times we could have been speaking two different languages. They thought James Baldwin, the great writer of the fifties was actor Alec Baldwin’s younger brother. Many of them had never heard of Kafka, or Chekhov. (oh, my god, not even my beloved CHEKHOV??) Of course, to be fair, I had never heard Justin Bieber sing and I didn’t even know who Flo Rida or Macklemore were, or why so many of their generation were interested in vampire love. Undead? Partially dead? If I get the definition of metaphor nailed down, then I can ask if this is a metaphor for life as we know it.
Despite this cultural gap, the students were fun to be with, agreeable and sharp, and we had some satisfying (and leveling) meetings of the mind. (For all their resistance to library research, there was my suspicion of Google and Wiki.)When I gave up teaching undergrads, it was not because of the students, it was because I didn’t want to grade papers or people anymore.
Now I teach older students in non-credit courses, like Lifelong Learning and Life Spring, and my older students present different challenges and pleasures. First of all, I get to hang out with a group of bright and interesting folks from my generation, so we share a general fund of knowledge. (This also means I have to be on my toes because my students are already well-educated, many of them former teachers themselves.) It also means I can dig deeper when I prepare a subject, which gives me the chance to learn something, too.
Last year I sat on the other side of the desk for the first time in more than fifty years, when I took a poetry class taught by a former colleague, now somewhere in her nineties and still at it. What a pro. The depth and breadth of her knowledge were part of it, but more than that, she had a seemingly endless sense of wonder and pleasure at a line or a word or a certain poem, and it was infectious. And she seemed eager to hear what we, her students, thought, and appreciative of what we had to say.
That kind of generosity can only come with confidence and experience, and it brought back memories of my early days , because as every new teacher knows, at the beginning we are often holding tight to the knowledge we are being paid to impart, and letting the class in can be a scary thing. What if they ask me something I don’t have an answer to? What if someone says the one big thingI am basing my lesson on before I get a chance to land it? What if someone challenges me?
I guess the biggest challenge was to wait out silence in the classroom, because there is nothing more frightening than an unresponsive class of students. It can feel hostile. (Sometimes it is; mostly it isn’t.) But once I learned to admit I didn’t know the answer to everything, and to love the disrupters because they always brought the classroom alive, and to lean into silence as if it were a big fluffy pillow rather than an abyss, it was fun fun fun.
And then it was time to retire. But I didn’t, quite. And I’m finishing out another short semester (like a short stack at iHop – tasty and just enough at my age) and looking forward to next year. Old soldiers and old teachers – not done yet.