Friday, April 24, 2020

Lifelong Learners

It has been four months since I was last seated with other “lifelong learners” — as the program on the nearby university campus calls us.

I had been listening with twenty-five classmates — my age or older — to works by twentieth-century composers. Our concluding class in the last week of November focused on familiar composers like Prokofiev and Barber, but it was a cello sonata by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu that gave me a reason to search out his works at home on YouTube.

As part of another course last fall, I accompanied the facilitator of the course and six classmates to the Harvard Art Museums. It was a Saturday afternoon. I had not known about Paula Modersohn-Becker before, but her “Girl in a Red Dress” (1902) was hanging starkly against the white wall of one gallery. German expressionism had a new face for me that afternoon after long minutes standing before her work.

For obvious reasons many of the retired people drawn to these courses are former teachers like me. In a course on religious liberty, two women raised their hands during a discussion of the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning prayer in public schools. They had both taught in public schools most of their professional lives; they vividly recalled how changed the atmosphere of their classrooms had felt when they were no longer able to lead their own students in prayer.

Most of the courses meet six times during a term, once a week for an hour and a half. An old church friend from whom I first learned about the lifelong learners program had advised keeping my classes to two days of the week. So twice a week I walked the twenty minutes to the nearby train station, got off at the fourth stop, and caught the shuttle bus to campus.

As I walked the hallways of the campus buildings, I had to get used to students passing me without meeting my eye or greeting me. How would they know anything about me that would elicit even that little bit of their attention? I was no longer a teacher or an administrator — I was an older man enrolled in one of those classes that were restricted to retired people. This was that university program that brought more customers to the food court to linger by the salad bar at midday.

I would be happy to be standing by that salad bar again.

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