WITH SUMMER giving way to fall, memories of week long trips in June and July are spinning into two-minute-long September anecdotes. Last week at supper I heard tales of a summer cruise to Greenland, a driving trip gone awry on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a family adventure in pursuit of Dungeness crab on the rainy Oregon Coast.
I spent much of my summer with a family of grain and pig farmers in Iowa, a boy and a tiger stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean, an insane king in medieval England, and a salesman in Prague who turned into a cockroach.
These travelogues all took place on Wednesdays at the intersection of Bull and Washington, courtesy of The Learning Center at Senior Citizens, Inc and the public schools. They’re the stories behind four literary works found on this year’s Summer Reading List for rising senior high school students in the local public school system. Two are novels: A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley, and Life of Pi by Yann Martell. One is a play, William Shakespeare’s King Lear. The fourth, Metamorphosis, is a novella by Franz Kafka.
For this unlikely global journey, I took the job of cruise director, dusting off my 25-year-old unused English degree and putting it to use as instructor for two six-week-long courses at The Learning Center, as part of a program called “Seniors to Seniors.” The intent of the first-time program was to bring together adults over age 55 with rising high school seniors, for lively, cross-generation discussion about books on the teens’ summer reading list.
Alas, only two or three high school seniors signed up for any of the one-hour-per-week courses offered this summer, and none signed up for mine. The lack of teenagers in our classes was lamented but didn’t hinder our energy level, and gave us extra discussion time. It wasn’t necessary to explain to a gathering of senior citizens what life was like during the American recession of 1979, the time period for A Thousand Acres.
What I didn’t fully comprehend is how much energy it would take for me to keep up with the students, most of whom were in their 60s and 70s, and at least one over 80. Among them were a retired history professor, a retired attorney, a retired marine science educator, a current Cultural Affairs commissioner, a retired nurse, and a retired theater director. Their degrees were from prestigious universities—Vanderbilt, UNC at Chapel Hill, Emory, University of Chicago. Many had masters’ and a few held Ph. D.’s. An intimidating group.
Each week my role was to launch the conversation and play devil’s advocate. We found ourselves debating everything from “What is truth?” to “What is life?” We pondered sensitive topics like mental illness, sexual relationships and race. We talked about stories of hope and despair—those of the characters, and those of our own.
We ate cookies and laughed and disagreed and recommended books to each other.
It took three hours to prepare to lead each one-hour session, and I was exhausted at the end of each Wednesday. I gained a new appreciation for teachers and the prep work they must do to keep students’ attention all day every day.
I sent up a little prayer of thanks for my high school English teachers, Beulah Harper Nettles, Richard Braithwaite and Paul Worley, whose lessons somehow came back to me 30 years after I last sat in their classes.
All the students were eager participants, and there was no homework or testing. But had there been grading, everyone was the star student this summer, and they all deserved A’s in my book. cs
Fall courses at The Learning Center at Senior Citizens, Inc. begin Wednesday, September 24. Call 912/234-0363.
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