A syllabus for middle age
A chalkboard at an old schoolhouse at the Highland Village Museum in Iona, Nova Scotia. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)
As someone who loves learning, teaching was a terrific profession to pursue. It meant I spent much of my life in school.
Even as a teacher, every fall I would buy myself a brand new box of yellow Ticonderoga pencils, and maybe a new outfit or two. I got excited about trying something innovative with my students, and some years even taught a different grade or subject. I bought new books, decorated bulletin boards, and labeled brightly colored folders. Depending on the grade, I hung posters of polar regions or the periodic table of elements.
Essentially, I had a valid excuse to advance my own education, whether through workshops, summer courses, or the pursuit of an advanced degree. Becoming a principal seemed like a logical step forward and that, too, came with an expectation to continuously pursue more knowledge.
But a strange thing has happened since leaving the classroom and administration: I find myself a little lost without a built-in excuse to learn something new.
I imagine pursuing a doctorate, but to be honest, at my age I am certain that the financial return on that investment would be minimal, if any at all. And, what would I want to study? Life is getting shorter by the day. Do I really want to invest tens of thousands of dollars chasing another degree in education?
I’ve given it some thought, and I have decided that it’s time to look at things a little differently. It is time to give myself permission to learn just for the sake of learning. I don’t need an excuse, or permission, to keep being a nerd.
So, I sat myself down and pretended I was my own college adviser. I asked myself what I was interested in, what I wanted to do with my life, and how I envisioned those things coming together. I made three lists: things I wanted to know more about, questions that kept me up at night, and dream accomplishments.
I soon found myself with some very long lists. That first column looked like this – the World War II prisoner of war camp in Stark, New Hampshire; the unique collection of writers who built American literature from Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1800s; middle age and the strange things that accompany it; careful stewardship of acres of timberland that had belonged to my dad; American sign language, blues music, the troubles in Northern Ireland, documentary filmmaking, hospice care, swing dancing, becoming a better writer – and I was left with more than enough to begin building my own syllabus for middle age.
This was exciting! I made reading lists and searched for podcasts and TED Talks that fit my interests. I made a timeline of semesters and “course offerings.” I even allowed myself to imagine that I would secretly be working for Walpole, New Hampshire, filmmaker Ken Burns on a documentary about the Concord writers and we would make the project public only upon completion of my research.
That excitement waned when it occurred to me that I would have no way of marking the completion of my studies, an award of a degree, so to speak. Who would hold me accountable? How would I know whether I was making progress? Who would grade me and my work? Was this just an absolutely insane idea altogether? Then I remembered something my dad used to say: “Always take the opportunity to learn something new. That’s something that can never be taken away from you, no matter what happens.”
So, now the work of learning begins.
I will give serious thought to who I might look to for direction and expertise, and whose depth of knowledge I might tap for a bit of inspiration. I’ll begin working my way through that reading list, which admittedly is probably just an excuse to acquire more books. I will be mindful of how I spend my time and where I travel. A weekend in Concord, Massachusetts, wandering around with the ghosts of Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, could be a lot more productive than my typical viewing of the Premier League soccer matches. A half-hour a night watching sign language lessons online will certainly build more neural pathways in my aging brain than scrolling through mindless content designed to make us feel inadequate and uncomfortable. Re-reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” will be a much better use of my time than belittling myself for not knowing the answers to the New York Times weekend crossword with all of its trendy cultural references.
As usual, my dad was right. It would be silly not to keep learning. It would be a waste of my curiosity and the countless resources at our disposal these days.
And, it would be a shame to let the chance to work with Ken Burns pass me by.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.