62: Wisdom from My Elders

62: Wisdom from My Elders

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Wisdom from My Elders

Education is the best provision for the journey to old age.

~Aristotle

I was accustomed to teaching college undergrads, so this summer gig was a bit outside my comfort zone. The university’s Senior Scholars program wasn’t for college upperclassmen, but for senior citizens — people much older than my twenty-seven-year-old, graduate-student self.

Still, I’d signed on to teach Broadcast Media History to Senior Scholars in order to put a few dollars in my threadbare pockets. I compiled all my notes and slides, planning to start with some historical theory, then go over major radio and television events that shaped U.S. popular culture. (Sounds fun, right?)

I found my classroom in the basement of the senior community center and was greeted by a bright group of fifteen students already seated — women and men with silver hair, wrinkled skin, and lively spirits. They were chatty and clearly eager to learn.

“Ahem,” I said, clearing my throat and standing tall at the front of the classroom. “Thank you for coming. I’ll be teaching you about Broadcast Media History.” I noticed some sly smiles and sideways glances.

I proceeded to teach for the full forty-five minutes. And, by that, I mean lecture, with perhaps a few directed questions sprinkled in. Class ended, and I waved goodbye with a professional smile as they ambled out of the room talking in hushed tones.

The next day, as I walked through the senior center lobby, I noticed a few of my students sitting in the lounge area chatting. I gave them a small wave and a slightly confused look. Arriving in the basement classroom, I found the lights out and every seat empty.

I looked at my watch and double-checked my class info sheet. The time was correct, as was the day and the classroom. But nobody was there.

Classes were optional in the Senior Scholars program — no grades or anything — but fifteen students had signed up for mine. And not one of them had come back for the second day.

My stomach lurched, my cheeks reddened, and my breath grew shallow as the realization hit me: They didn’t like me. I was awful yesterday.

I plopped down on a plastic chair and dropped my head into my hands on a desk. Tears pooled at the corners of my eyes.

What was I going to do?

I was being paid to teach Broadcast Media History to fifteen students. And every last one of them had jumped ship after “the young professor” had bored them to rebellion.

Taking deep breaths in an attempt to quell my panic, I thought about how to get myself out of this mess. How could I redeem myself to these students, lure them back to this basement classroom, and fill it again with light and oxygen?

Finally, I had an idea. It was slightly mortifying, but it might work. I stood up from the plastic chair, squared my shoulders and then relaxed them. With my gut quivering, I marched out of the classroom with a new approach, hoping I wouldn’t be facing a firing squad.

Ascending the basement stairs cautiously, I walked into the lounge. The seniors were waiting there with raised eyebrows to see how this young whippersnapper would handle their walkout. I inhaled and exhaled deeply. “Hi, everybody,” I said. Some of the men crossed their legs and sat back in their cushioned chairs, grinning like they were about to watch a boxing match.

“So, I realize… I blew it yesterday,” I said. “I apologize. I was trying to teach like I thought a university course should be. It was boring. And… obnoxious.”

They giggled quietly like a group of schoolchildren as I lowered my chin and grinned sheepishly, my eyes scanning them.

“I am asking you to please give me another chance.”

The room was silent as they looked at one another, communicating silently.

“I commit to you that, this time, I will make it more interesting,” I continued. “I won’t lecture… In fact, what I was thinking is that I could ask you to tell me your own experiences of the events of Broadcast Media History. After all, you were alive for most of these, right? What do you remember about them? What did you think about them?”

It felt as though all the tension whooshed out the windows then, like air releasing from a balloon. They started to laugh and chatter and talk over one another.

“Remember Ed Sullivan?”

“Oh, I actually met Walter Cronkite!”

“We closed our shop early once a week for I Love Lucy!”

They had so much to share, so much they wanted to talk about.

“Yes, yes!” I said, raising my voice above the din. “We’ll talk about all of that. Starting today with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. How many of you remember that, with Orson Welles?”

The room erupted with affirmations and stories.

“Okay, great. Yes!” I said, nodding and raising my hands, trying to bring their attention back to me. “So… would you all be willing to come back to our classroom and talk about it there?”

With heads held high they picked up their purses, notebooks and coffee cups and filed down the basement stairs. They had made their point. Thankfully, I had heard them.

We had a wonderful summer discussing the events of Broadcast Media History, the events of their lives. I learned as much about these events from their stories as I’d learned in all my graduate courses. I even threw in some historical tidbits here and there that they didn’t know. (I told them that CBS had a minister, a priest and a rabbi screen every I Love Lucy episode for “offensiveness” when Lucy was pregnant, a TV first. They told me that Lucille Ball was a natural brunette.)

From my worst moment of shame in my teaching career came one of my greatest lessons. Nobody wants to be lectured at. No matter their age, people want to be heard and seen. I’ve approached every single class I’ve taught differently after that summer — and I have the mutinous, wise Senior Scholars to thank for that.

~Megan Pincus Kajitani

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