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Old Dog, New Tricks

Although I didn’t exactly feel this way in high school or college, I love being a student. Everything about it appeals to me: the luxury of discussing ideas; the comfort of a schedule set by someone else; the challenge of mostly manageable benchmarks for each aspect of the subject or skill I’m learning; and the enormous sense of accomplishment when the class has ended and I know I’ve absorbed something new. Partly I think I was subtly indoctrinated to this way of thinking because my father was a teacher. He didn’t push me toward education, but our lives were structured around the 9-3 school day, the summers off, and the general idea that school is what we do in life. It’s probably no accident that I became a teacher myself, continuing in an environment focused on acquiring new knowledge and proficiencies.

As I make my way down my new path in this second act, I realize that being a student is at the core of many of the items on my bucket list. I checked one off early when I completed an MFA that I started before I retired, but I still have goals like “Learn to make a documentary film,” “Play the piano,” and “Improve my French.” None of these will make me a better person or even substantially change my life, but I know that the experience of taking a class or a workshop and experiencing a new view of a subject or a person or an idea can alter me on a number of levels.

I took a photography class when I was a year or so out from retirement and I learned so much more than simply how to determine which F-stop to use or when to use the dodging tool in Photoshop. I understood for the first time how I “see” things around me, that I tend to focus on what’s right in front of me at first and later the whole. And, I had the fun of being in the same classroom with 19-year-olds who grew up using technology and could almost naturally do things with a computer that I will probably never accomplish. Still, I was awed and inspired. I was even challenged in a positive way by the exams, realizing how long it had been since I’d had to take in a large amount of information and be able to communicate it back in the form of multiple-choice or short answers.

In a homemade classroom of sorts—as part of the larkishness that comes with retirement—I’m taking a short trip to Paris next month by myself. When I was thinking about my high school French skills, now grown very rusty, I lamented the fact that I hadn’t quite gotten to that goal on my bucket list. That’s when it occurred to me that I could learn while I’m there, and I started contacting potential French teachers. I found a lovely woman (at least she seems like it via email) who lives in Montmartre and is willing to work with me a few times while I’m there. I’m a little nervous about my lack of skills, but I’m reminding myself of what I used to say to my own students: “You are taking this class because you want to learn this subject, not so you can show how much you already know.”

For the most part, though, I’m excited about riding the Metro to her neighborhood and challenging my 64-year-old brain to make room for a few more verb tenses and vocabulary words, to be able describe the Jardin du Luxembourg in its own language. There is something stimulating about being a novice, something lovely about the vulnerability of experiencing things with a beginner’s mind, as they say. In many ways, this whole phase of life is like that, seeing the picture from a different angle, approaching ideas from a less stressful vantage point, and discovering things that once felt frivolous in the face of having to make a living.

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