April 18th, 2008

A Lifelong Learning Role Model


I use an American Heritage dictionary that belonged to my now 97-year-old aunt. She’s descended into dementia and no longer recognizes or communicates sensibly with those of us in this world. But her dictionary is well-used and annotated. An arrow leads from the word “parsimony” to the top margin where she has written “tightwad.” Besides extra synonyms, in some places she tries out the word in a sentence. Near the word “etiology” she has written, “The etiology of conflict in the Middle has a long and sordid history.” Sometimes there are personal admonitions. “Good word! Remember to use it.”

She loved words and names. After retiring she worked (mostly volunteered) in a florist shop where she made it her business to learn the common and Latin names of all the flowers and house plants sold in the shop. That got her interested in tree identification. She bought books and went about identifying the various trees on the wooded property of the retirement community where she lives. She became so curious about whether or not she was right, she hired an arborist and had him verify her identifications. Out of 28 trees, she had all but one correct. Then she bought metal labels for the trees so that others could learn to recognize them.

Whenever she got interested in something new, it wasn’t enough to just do Tai Chi or photography or Ikebana, she immersed herself in the history, philosophy, and personalities of her latest avocation. She came to know so much about the life and work of Ansel Adams, she was asked to give talks about him and his work.

And all of this happened in her 80s. Before that she had several careers and countless other avocations. Even in her early 90s with cognitive abilities compromised, she still wanted to learn. She could no longer use her TV remote, but she gave me money to buy her a computer.
I want to thrive on learning the way she did. My interests are narrower than hers, but my commitment to understand teaching and learning is deep and heartfelt. With her picture on my desk and her dictionary by my side I aspire to this kind of lifelong learning—to never know enough, to always have more questions—to have that visible passion for learning so inspirational to others. Shouldn’t this be the quest of every teacher?

–Maryellen Weimer