The dream class
More than halfway through this semester with the film criticism class I'm teaching now, I've decided I've found the perfect group of students. Not once has anyone come in late or not done the assignments. They say smart, insightful things about the films we're studying (some Hitchcock, some Altman, with Casablanca thrown in for good measure), always anticipating where the discussion should go next. Each 90-minute session flies by in a whirl of opinions, arguments, film clips and hearty laughs. I can't wait to see them every week.
On the second day of the term, I got to the classroom early to set up the video/DVD equipment. As I opened the door, I saw almost every seat filled and thought I'd accidentally walked in on the end of a previous class. No, as it turned out, my group of 55 enrollees were almost all there 30 minutes early, eager and ready to go. They introduced themselves and told me how excited they were to get into the course. Nobody goes to sleep on the back row during this class. Nobody leaves early. They keep the discussions going all the way to the parking lot.
So what's going on? Who are these Stepford students? Ah, here's the secret to this perfect college class: Not one of them is under 60 years old.
In a program for "lifelong learners," retirees and senior citizens pay a fee and sign up for a wide range of classes each semester. They can learn languages or study literature, film, theater and music. They take courses in philosophy and physics, photography and poetry. Many of the instructors are retired, too -- or, like me, were retired involuntarily by other institutions. We're there because we like teaching. And the money's not bad either.
The classes are held on the school's west campus in a comfortably appointed building with lots of brightly lit rooms and a huge student lounge. The air-conditioning hasn't broken down once. And the soda machines have Coke Zero, which is a bonus.
Such energy these students have! Maybe it's Geritol, maybe it's beta-blockers and high fiber diets, but these folks are wide awake and ready to rumble every single day. Nobody drags in complaining about a roommate stealing their ADD drugs or how they're hung over from happy hour at Primo's. And hands down, these students are the best-dressed, cleanest, most polite and well-spoken I've ever encountered. Not a "tramp stamp" tattoo or navel ring among them--or at least they're not showing them off in public. (Hey, some of these gals are gorgeous...as they say, 70 is the new 50.)
The best part of it for me is not having to explain who's who in the films and what the cultural references are. I have yet to meet a 19-year-old who gets what Altman was doing in Nashville or can find the Freudian symbols in Psycho-- or even knows what "Freudian" means. As I told my class the other day, this is the first time I've taught Casablanca to a group who didn't need me to spend 10 minutes going into the history of the Vichy government.
Even better, they bring a wealth of life experiences to the table. When I asked last week what makes films like Casablanca hold up over six decades, I got wonderful answers. "They show us what love should look and feel like," said one student. And, said another, "You can see that a woman can love two very different men (Bogie's Rick and Paul Henreid's Victor Lazslo) for very good reasons." Then for a few minutes we talked about the benefits of a Rick over a Victor Lazslo, and vice versa. I sense that some of them have experienced great love and great loss in their long lives. Typical undergrads wouldn't even go to that place in the conversation.
When you teach a class of senior adults, you get students who want to be there and who wouldn't dream of skipping a minute of it. They're eating life in great big bites, these guys.
OK, I get some complaints when I walk to the back of the room while I'm talking and the hearing aid wearers on the front row can't pick up my voice. I turn the AV equipment up a little louder than I would for younger students. There aren't any Ashleys or Brads in this group, but I do have five Barbaras and seven Bobs, which perhaps are the Ashley/Brad equivalents for another generation.
Teach older students like these and rest assured you'll never have a helicopter mommy calling to complain about grades or exam schedules. With the over-60 crowd, hey, for the most part their parents are dead.