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What I'm Learning Now

I remember being 6 years old and standing next to the Formica counter in Mrs. Phillips’ first grade class. We had just finished being in our reading groups and I had read a page or two out loud. I don’t remember the content, though I’m sure it was related to seeing Sally run. What has remained in my mind, as clearly as if it had happened yesterday, was the sincere look on my teacher’s face when she said, “You have learned how to read. This is something that will change your life forever.” At that age, I didn’t even know what that meant exactly, but I understood it was important. Learning to read is probably among the most life-altering events we ever experience.

It's the basis for everything that follows—how we take in information, think about it, make decisions, and figure out what we’re doing and where we’re going. Many other life skills are almost as valuable, though, and learning in general is a gift, no matter what the task or lesson.

I argued hard for my limitations over the years, either too scared, too shy, or too self-conscious to put myself out there and try something again.

When we’re strapped into the life roller coaster, though, we forget the value of learning. It just becomes part what we do—sometimes fun and sometimes stressful. Once we have the basics of managing our days, many things that we learn blend into each other and there isn’t the highlighted moment like I had back in first grade. Still, I feel like my blur of a 30-year career in education was filled with things to learn—from the basics of technology to the intricacies of human relationships. Over the years, I also purposely learned a few new things outside of work, in cooking classes, paddle board lessons, a piano class I took one semester, and even meditation practice. But mostly, when I was plugging along in my life, I wasn’t particularly aware of what I was learning, much less honoring it as I did when I learned to read with Mrs. Phillips that day more than 60 years ago.

Now that I’m retired, and my head is more open than it has felt in years, I’m thinking about learning more consciously. I’m pondering what I’ve had a hard time learning—like algebra and my own strengths—and skills I learned without paying much attention to them—like being able to read a room. I’m also trying to learn a few new things, because … why not? And some of them aren’t even totally new. For at least the fourth time in my adult life, I’m trying to do a better job of learning French. I even took a few French lessons from a Parisian grad student when I was visiting there a few years ago and we mostly chatted in English about life because I was so lame at French. Now I sit in front of my computer, speaking in a bad accent as my Babbel lessons play. It’s fun, but it also makes me aware of how much time has passed since I tried to learn French in high school.

In those days, when we all memorized dialogues about meeting our friends in the library or cafeteria, I did the minimal work required, which obviously contributed to my still-lacking skills. These days, the people in the conversations we rely on to learn vocabulary and tenses are meeting at climate change protests and women’s rights rallies. I’m still struggling with which nouns are feminine and which masculine, but the stories are much more entertaining.

I’m also spending time these days un-learning some of the lessons I gleaned as a young person—like those related to my limitations. When I was starting out and took a tiny risk or two, if it didn’t work out, that activity went on the “You Can’t Do This” list, which was much longer than the one focused on what I could do. I argued hard for my limitations over the years, either too scared, too shy, or too self-conscious to put myself out there and try something again. I took a drawing class once when I was in my late 20s and I was so stiff it’s no wonder that I could barely recognize the figures I was trying to sketch.

What I want now is to go back to earlier attempts—activities like tennis, music, gardening. But this time, I want to feel less anxious about how well I’m doing and just enjoy them. I want to read more history without worrying about my grade and I want to create a new design for my backyard without being concerned that someone I know will not like it. When you’re 70, I’m finding, it doesn't matter much what other people think, but it’s more important than ever to feel brave enough to just step forward and take in what’s here to learn.


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