Don’t tell the kids, but the real learning begins after school

My grandmother had a monkey on her back. She was small and brown and her name was Susie (the monkey, not my grandmother).

My uncle brought the little creature home from the South Pacific, as some sailors did who served in World War II.

Susie slipped right into the rest of the menagerie on the Oregon ranch. This included a cowboy band and a black bear named Cindy.

Susie’s chief recreation was biting people. She didn’t much care whom, but she seemed to think that I’d be especially toothsome. At 6, I was small for my age, and she probably thought of me as a sort of hors d’oeuvres. We didn’t get all upset about such things in those days. I just learned to keep out of her way. It was sort of like having a small annoying cousin. Swinging from Grandma’s apron gave her a really long reach. I got very good at jumping sideways out of her way without even looking up from what I was doing. I can still do it if I have to. Our most lasting lessons aren’t learned in school.

School started again over the last two weeks. Statistics show that while 4.9 million students have returned to grades one through 12, those students aren’t the only ones looking at learning. The National Center for Education Statistics says that 4 million adults 35 years and older are enrolled in degree granting institutions. Many schools have as many adults enrolled in continuing education as they have in degree programs.

Schools like Texas A & M and UCLA actually have retirement centers on campus. In At Pierce County’s own Pierce College, Community Education, formerly Continuing Education, offers dozens of classes from computer technology through jewelry making and book clubs. There’s even the invitation to suggest or create new classes yourself.

Most life lessons turn out to be things you really didn’t want to know.

For instance, soon after my kids started school, I learned that children are hardly ever really sick when they: A) get a tummy ache at school causing the least convenient parent to be called to collect them immediately because they threw up, or B) the student gets a tummy ache at home that requires them to stay home from school because they are going to throw up.

The seriousness of the illness is determined by placing the sickie in a darkened room with no electronic companions. If they don’t recover quickly, they really are ill. That’s why they threw up. Otherwise, send them back to school. Repeat till a miraculous cure is achieved.

Many important lessons are learned from daily living.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, my microwave died with a hideous shriek. During the prolonged wait for the repairman, I was forced to cook a real meal on the actual stove. While I was cooking, the phone rang. I did not want the grease to splatter on my lovely fake wood floor while I was talking so I put my plastic cutting board next to the skillet to catch the splatters. That way I wouldn’t have to turn off the burner. All who see the learning opportunity approaching, raise your hands.

Right in the middle of the call, the learning experience arrived. The cutting board melted and spilled carcinogenic rivulets of molten plastic into my dinner. At least I didn’t set the house on fire.

When the repairman, Fred, came it only took him about 30 minutes to install a new microwave. I asked him my question of the day: “What are you learning right now?”

Fred, at 50, has a business degree and is working on his second career. He dreams of starting a business that will somehow help troubled teens. It will probably take some additional education. “Mostly all I know is what I don’t know,” he confessed, adding, “I wake up thinking, ‘Please God, don’t let me be out of time.’ ”

What happened to Susie? She lived a happy life, snacking on random visitors to Grandma’s ranch, until she developed irreconcilable differences with Cindy the black bear.

Susie bit Cindy. Cindy bit back. Goodbye Susie. Life lesson learned.

All of this happened in rural Oregon in the 1940s, so there’s no use yelling at me now. It’s a jungle out there – and you can’t monkey around. Turns out the learning really starts when school is over.