A few years back, when I was a young lad of 65, I attended courses at San Diego State University to learn Italian in preparation for tourist trips to Italy. Would an old geezer like me be able to keep up with young the whippersnappers in college today?
The school is just a twelve minute trolley ride from my home, which proved quite convenient. However, the timing of the trolley’s arrival at the stop near my home was such that I had a choice to take a trolley thirty minutes before my class or risk taking a trolley that came only fifteen minutes before. The latter sometimes made me late. The earlier one forced me to wait fifteen minutes for my class to start. Since the classroom was occupied by another course before mine, I had to find a comfortable place to wait. My old bones cannot endure standing for long periods. The perfect refuge appeared like magic.
The building in which the Italian class was held was being renovated to upgrade all of the rooms to Smart Classrooms with multimedia, Internet, audiovisual, and video conferencing capabilities. The previous occupants of the offices surrounding the classrooms, including the African-American Studies and Women’s Studies Programs, had been relocated to a new building on campus, leaving their old offices vacant.
The office of the head of the Women’s Studies Program had been just across the hall from my classroom. Her name and title were still on the door. One day I tried the door handle and found the room to be unlocked, empty, and abandoned. There was a nice desk custom-built to fit in the corner of the room, overlooking the beautiful campus through picture windows on each side of the corner. The windows were shaded by a tall tree, framing the panoramic view.
That night, I used my computer to create in the same font and format of the existing door sign a replacement which read, “Corwin Bell – Old Men’s Studies.” “Corwin,” my first name, is the one by which I was known at SDSU. I mounted the new sign in place of the old one.
I began arriving at the office at least a full hour early each class day to review my homework, the current lesson, and to practice my vocabulary. There were some remnants of the previous occupant, including some old graded papers on the subject of women’s roles in society. Out of curiosity, I perused these enough to see that the key to a higher grade on a paper in that particular women’s study course was to bemoan in writing how brutal men had enslaved women and that now was the time to rise up and cast off the chains. I really enjoyed my new office, and my being there was to prove beneficial to others.
First, a graduate student who did not know that the Women’s Study Program had moved, slipped her master’s thesis under the door, expecting it to be reviewed by the previous occupant, as the cover sheet on the paper indicated. I carried that paper all of the way across campus to the new Women's Studies Office and made certain that the proper professor received it. The woman wondered suspiciously how I had happened to find the document. I gave her a lame story of seeing it halfway under the door and knowing the office to be vacant. (Why the suspicion? Did she think I had stolen it at gunpoint? Was I a typical male oppressor out for some evil gain? Sheesh!) No good turn goes unpunished, I was to find out.
Soon, my young classmates began to notice the sign on the door and that, just before class, I would walk out of the office into the hall and across to the classroom. They began knocking on the door and sticking their heads in to see what was going on. I invited them in and conversed with them about Italian.
They tended to look up to me, for, despite my advanced age, I was near the top of my class. This was despite the fact that the class had many Spanish speaking kids, some of whom had spent extensive periods of time in Italy. Spanish and Italian are so close that they are almost mutually intelligible. One student even confided to me that Italian was his first language, but that he had sandbagged a test of fluency to do poorly enough to be allowed by SDSU to take Italian courses. He explained that college presents time management problems. If one has a chance to get easy A’s and credit hours toward a degree with minimal effort, one jumps at it.
Often, I found that I was spending a considerable amount of time each class day giving simple advice on all sorts of subjects to these young people. Some advice was specific to our study of Italian some was more generic. The American educational system and their naïveté were such that I could have offered up to eager listeners, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” or “A stitch in time saves nine” as if they were my original thoughts. They were unusually grateful for any small pearls of geriatric wisdom I might offer.
Even the Italian "professoressa" came to me for help. Her office was all of the way across campus. She taught classes in our building that were separated by an hour break. Old like me, she found the hike across campus and back a chore. Would I let her use my office after class each day? “Of course!” (My generosity was boundless.)
I began to think, “You know, this academic life is not half bad! Perhaps I should become a professor and have a nice office like this. I had done so many things in life and had degrees and certificates from four distinguished universities: engineering, contract law, business, systems management, psychology, naval science, navigation, etc. Why not?” Maybe I could become a full time counselor to students. There must be something I could teach or do. I regretted that an old man is not able to parley a claim of oppression into a cushy “studies” position. I could see myself with a protest sign: "Old Fogies Make Only 72% of What Women Earn!" (Unfortunately, Warren Buffett's earnings skew our statistics.)
What about the history of the Vietnam War? Perhaps I could teach that. I had spent nine years of my life up to my neck in that war. “Without me,” I thought, “we never would have won it!”
Just about the time I got really comfortable in the office, a Lily Tomlinesque administrator (as I imagined her) was on to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have blown off the Women’s Studies professor. Was she on to me because of the thesis? They locked the office up – permanently. My new career was over.