Portrait of a student as an old(er) man

Although my credentials intimate higher educational success, school has never been particularly easy for me. When I didn’t work hard, it was not because I didn’t have to. It was usually because I was bored or did not care. Mostly, traditional education is rote, based on reading and listening for regurgitation in some fashion at a later date. I am not particularly good at any of those. I may read a lot but if the text is content heavy, I generally only retain an abstract of it. I learn by seeing and doing and figuring things out for myself.

In formal education information sticks best when it is introduced and fleshed out in a lecture and/or through reading and then is reinforced by demonstration and practice. WMA’s conceptual-based, hands-on approach is the gravity that pulled me in. So I knew that lots of reading and lectures laden with new content would be a major challenge for me here at Gorgas. On the whole, the faculty has done an admirable job mixing the formats so that even with the volume of information covered, they did all they could to make learning possible.

The impact that my age (61 and change) had on my ability to learn turned out to be more revealing and interesting.  A lot has changed in the 35 years since I graduated from medical school.  My hearing has suffered declines no thanks to motorcycles, chainsaws and jet travel.  Although hearing has not been a big issue at work in the ED, more and more I find myself asking students to repeat themselves in class.  My near-vision has declined as well.  Vanity notwithstanding, I have come to magnifiers later than most people similarly afflicted. Prior to the course, I used them mostly for suturing and, after a bad day, to read a book at bedtime.    So, in anticipation of prodigious amounts of reading and the inevitable back-and-forth in the classroom, I had my eyes checked, bought a pair of prescription magnifiers and committed myself to eschew my usual backbench seat for one right up front.

Desptie these efforts, my vision and hearing losses were constant reminders that I am no longer 27. I fumbled with the glasses while my attention shifted between the screen and my notes. (I tried bifocals once and they made me fell nauseous.) I missed more than a few concepts when an instructor turned away from me or spoke in a muted volume, the end of a thought dissolving as though it was unimportant. I even answered more than one question with an “I don’t know” not because I didn’t but because I didn’t want to ask someone to repeat something for a third time because I just couldn’t get past an accent or a soft voice. I was just swapping one potential embarrassment for another.

All of this made me aware of  how isolated one can feel. I don’t mind sitting or standing alone in a crowd while others socialize around me, but this was different. As good as the staff was, not once did anyone ask if any of us had any disabilities or special needs. There were a couple of times I (and a couple of others) asked someone to speak up. The person did, for a couple of minutes.  It was surprising how infrequently the lecturers repeated questions before answering them. I am not trying to be particularly critical of the staff. This is nothing unique in an educational environment, especially with a young and highly intelligent crowd; our class was mostly both. But if an educator like me is reluctant to speak up, what about so many others?

This is a reminder to me, if I needed one, to be more aware of who is in class, or next to me on a plane. People don’t need to be beaten up over the issue as much as reminded that our inner workings are not identical.  Whether it has to do with sensory perception, brain organization, or locomotion, we are different enough to merit flexibility. One of my prior students, a guy that I have worked with in a variety of contexts reminded me once that it is not a divide between able versus disabled but a spectrum, degrees of ability. He liked to refer to me as temporarily able. Not anymore.


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One Response to “Portrait of a student as an old(er) man”

  1. Roberta Says:

    Amen David…………………………………….

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