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Teaching Old Dogs New or Forgotten Tricks (Lifelong Learning Program at Shepherd University)

February 3, 2012 - Austin Porter
I was never much on school.

Maybe it was kindergarten that put me off learning. There was a puzzle. The word was that no one had ever been able to assemble it. “It’s missing a piece,” we would whisper as though that one piece was the key to its difficulty. One day, I decided to give it a go. I struggled with it throughout the morning. I was forced to work through lunch. Finally, mid-afternoon, the teacher had the class gather around me. “Austin, here,” she said as she pushed me and my chair away from the table. In what seemed like seconds, the puzzle, minus one piece, waswhole. “You see class, it’s easy when you know what you are doing. Austin, obviously, doesn’t.“

Maybe she was trying to make a point about hubris. At the time, I thought she was a nasty, no good, so and so.

In fourth grade, I was the straw monitor. Each student in class got a small carton of milk, and then took a straw from the box I was holding. Unfortunately, that box had a habit of slipping out of my hands. Perhaps I was trying to avoid feeling proud about never dropping the straws on the floor. After letting gravity have its way once too often, the teacher screamed, "You're no longer the straw monitor. You understand me, you're fired!" Then, feeling the need to justify her decision to the class, she shouted, "We put those straws in our mouths. In...Our...Mouths." I felt very proud about not having anything to be proud about.

In junior high, there was the rattan, a flexible cane about a yard long, 3/4 of inch in diameter, flexible and porous. When you misbehaved, out went your hand palm up, and down went the rattan. Some educators stored the cane with a third of its length stuck in a vase that was filled with vinegar. The blood blisters that would often appear during the whipping would often time burst. When that happened the vinegar would sting.

In high school art class, an artist, if you will, was demonstrating that a male torso was seven and one half heads tall. On the blackboard, there was a drawing of a sexless torso over which was superimposed the required number of heads. Shortly into the lecture, he pointed out that the midpoint of the torso was three and one half heads from the torso's feet. He emphasized this fact by hitting the drawing's crotch with his pointer. Smack. As he undoubtedly expected, several of us laughed. This gave him an excuse to berate us for being sexual perverts. I remember that his rant was so intense, so insanely over the top that I feared he might march the laughers, if not all of us, off to the nurse’s office for castration.

College had its moments. The promiscuity made up for a lot of its short comings. Coffee was inexpensive. And the library was a comfortable place to nap. But there was a weirdness that just made the whole experience unreal. For instance, I was in a production of "Waiting for Godot." We didn't have time to work on the second act so we did the first act twice. No one seemed to notice, least of all the professor who was drunk and left at intermission.

You can imagine that when I first heard about Life Long Learning, I was skeptical. Childhood learning had been such a disaster, why go on? And who needs a program taught to and by old people. This says something about how I have yet to fully deal with the issue of aging. Maybe next semester L.L.L.P. could offer a course on aging with dignity. Call it “Being Old is Just Like Being Young, Except You’re Old.”

Surprisingly enough, when the schedule of classes was posted, I was tempted to take every course. They were that interesting. After checking with Karen Rice, the Director, to verify that there would be no rattan, I became a member and signed up for three course: Abolitionist Writers taught by Sara Smith, Poetry taught by Philip Bufithis, and The Holocaust taught by Robbye Horowicz. There was a fair amount of reading, but no tests or papers. Fellow classmates wanted to learn. The teachers, all experienced and all very good, taught for the love of teaching eager students. There was always lots of discussion. I had a blast.

This term, the courses all look exciting. I’ve enrolled in several. If I were you, I’d check out the web site. Robbye is back with Bible as Literature, Great Books, and a seminar on Shepherdstown in the early years. Art Wineburg, who I know through the Shepherdstown Mens (oops) Community Club, is leading The Fifties: The Post-war Decade. He’s hoping people who lived through that period will participate. Unfortunately, I’m not quite old enough to remember the 50s.

On Wednesday, February 29, from 5:30 PM until 7:00 PM, there’s the Lifelong Learning at Shepherd University Reception held at McMurran Hall, on German Street. Be there or be square, or at least out of the loop on what a great program this is.


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The Holocaust. Right to left: Art, Susan, Robbye, Austin


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