As I walked into the updated but bland, windowless classroom at University of Washington Tacoma, I felt a flush of warmth as I found a seat near the back of the room.
Anxious and excited, I nervously smiled and said “hello” to other students as they entered, acutely aware that I had a good 40 years on most of them. As we introduced ourselves aloud, my face went red as I felt the spotlight beam on me while talking about being newly retired and taking this creative nonfiction writing class for fun.
The age difference was most glaring at our second session, when the professor asked us to find out the name of each student associated with an interesting fact. We walked around the room, treasure map in hand, excited to discover who’s who.
My moment of reckoning came when I met J.R., whose interesting fact was, “I had four king’s cups in one night.” I had no idea what he was talking about but I think I said something like “Wow!” assuming that anything more than one cup in a given night would be impressive. He went on to explain that king’s cup is a drinking/card game. Now that I’ve Googled it, my “wow” remains.
I also met Nana, who shared the clue, “I’m a beauty YouTuber, though I don’t seem like it.” To my credit, I do know what YouTube is, but it was news to me that millions of people follow make-up gurus and beauty vloggers. And in the spirit of full disclosure, who knew that there was such a thing as “vloggers?”
Dustin’s fun fact was, “I learned and practice parkour/free-running for four years.” As much as I wanted to act cool like I knew all about it, the best I could do was blurt out, “What’s that?”
“It’s like jumping off of walls and stuff,” he explained. He went on to say that different people call it different things, and before I could check to ensure that my filter was firmly in place, I said, “Like, crazy?” He smiled politely and acknowledged some people do call it that, but my guess is that it’s not his preferred term.
My clue wasn’t exactly a challenge. I submitted an item about having a 30-year career in the community college system. Given that I was the only one there old enough to do anything for 30 years, it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to connect the dots.
I often wonder how students in class perceive me as an older person. No one, in any way, has intentionally been anything less than kind, friendly and collegial. I feel totally welcomed by the professor and students. But I do feel a moment of pause every once in a while that a dated cultural reference in my conversation or writing is all that it would take to instantly remind them that they are sitting next to their grandfather.
I think that fact bothers me more than it bothers them. While I appreciate good manners as much as the next person, I did feel just the teensiest bit ancient when the computer lab guys kept referring to me as “sir” as they helped me set up my university email account. I know it was well intentioned, but the “s-word,” even used in kindness, puts a new crack in the mirror of self-perception every time I hear it.
But none of that is enough for me to doubt the extraordinary gift of learning at any age. Taking this class through the UWT Access program for five bucks and fees gives me purpose, structure and social connection. I look forward to it every week, and I don’t even mind the quizzes, papers and homework that weigh on me like an overstuffed backpack.
Sure, it keeps me busy, but maybe one day I’ll take time to check out Nana’s latest beauty YouTube video, do a little free-running/parkour with Dustin and then call J.R. to see if he wants to play a game of king’s cup, or four.
Ted Broussard is newly retired after working as a counselor and administrator in community and technical colleges. A downtown Tacoma resident, he is one of six reader columnists writing for this page. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org