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Never too old to learn a few things

‘You mustn’t think of yourself as 80 years old,” the lady insisted. “You’re 80 years Young.”

She said it like “Younnnnng,” as if she were bestowing a prize.

I inspected the three inches of extra heavy support hose showing between my pants hem and orthopedic shoes. I politely stifled a burp of acid reflux. I haven’t just been touched by time. I’ve been molested.

“No,” I replied thoughtfully. “I’m pretty sure that’s 80 years old.”

It’s true. By the time we meet again, I will have passed that big 80th birthday, complete with champagne toasts and a gathering of my whole clan. And you know something? I’m tickled pink.

How lucky I am to be able to look back and know that I’ve been part of some of the most turbulent years of history of our country. It isn’t just something I read. I remember the kerfuffle (definitely not a word in 1941) when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day, I remember the jostling crowds on V-J Day, when World War II was over.

I’ll never forget the bleak November morning when a phone call came from half a world away that our young president had been assassinated. I am touched still by the memory of lines of Taiwanese and Chinese people who came to comfort the American community at that time of our terrible loss and the Mass for President John F. Kennedy offered in Mandarin at the mission church that night.

There’s a popular belief that no matter how many decades have gone by, it’s mandatory to concentrate on appearing and feeling young. But I don’t think we should turn our backs on the gifts we’ve been given just because the package is now a bit wrinkled. Instead, we should try to add new experiences.

I never expected to be a teacher, but for the past three months, I have been teaching public speaking at Clover Park Technical College, filling in while the regular instructor, Phil Venditti, is on sabbatical. I am just blown away by the caliber of the students and their determination to create a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. Many are military veterans and single parents. Most hold a job as well as going to school. This isn’t a carefree campus experience for most of them. This is a hard-fought battle, and they’re determined to take that last hill with honors.

The classes started with an “Elevator Speech.” That’s where you find yourself in an elevator with someone who turns toward you and says, “What do you do?” Before the doors open on the third floor, you must answer so compellingly that this potential employer asks to hear more. The students will finish next week with the same speech tightened into a real video résumé that they can use for future job applications. Community business people have been invited to share this experience.

One speech was about significant people in the students’ lives, and we cried together as they spoke of love remembered and love lost.

In one demonstration speech, a student reprised his military experience to show us how to conduct a search for a suspected terrorist. The student demonstrator honored my dinosaur sensibility by using his subject’s armpit to simulate a “crotch search.”

“I certainly appreciated that,” the “suspect” said. Me, too.

We learned make green smoothies. We learned to give CPR. “Are you all right, sir?” the student medic inquired of his patient/mannequin. Then he played ventriloquist, answering for the patient in a tiny, piping voice: “No. No, I’m not.”

The old song says it best. “If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.” In these times when we’re constantly connected by technology, I’ve been honored to be touched by these amazing people.

So merry Christmas to the students of Public Speaking classes 0517 and 0518 at Clover Park Technical College. Thank you for the gifts of yourself and — OK, I admit it — thanks for teaching me how to think young.

Bring on those birthdays! After all, an antique is something 100 or more years old, so I have lots of time. There it is in black and white. I’m not an antique. I’m a collectible.

Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker and writer. Contact her at PO Box 881, DuPont, WA 98327; 800-548-9264; or Dorothy@