It's never too late to have a hell of a time learning

4th December 1998 at 00:00
MARK, ONE of our young HNC students, popped his head round the workroom door. "Any OAPs in here?" he asked cheerily. He was sent on his way with an OHP and some acetates to practise his oral presentation and no one giggled till he was safely out of earshot.

Take a walk through our college canteen and you will see learners ranging from 16 to 80 plus. Whatever the current label, OAP, senior citizen or woopie, older people have been in the news and are reclaiming territory. Hilda Whyte has rebelled against the installation of a computer in her post office. Getting on for 80, she says she has got a perfectly good brain in her head and doesn't need a machine to help her. John Glenn is only a couple of years away from his 80th and has taken up space travel again. The "new old" are looking for adventure and whatever comes after.

Lifelong learning programmes mean they are also flocking to college, taking up new hobbies, learning new skills. But don't expect to see rows of blue-rinsed matrons or avuncular bearded men. We are talking new old here. That grandmother of three is probably the wafer-thin one with skin-tight jeans, eyebrow piercing and John Lennon specs.

After my Wednesday morning class, the lecturer next door asked what we had been doing because her own class had been curious. Were we too noisy? "No, " she said somewhat unconvincingly, "my class just thought it sounded much more fun than we were having."

Most of the Wednesday group are retired people, and enthusiastic is much too weak a word to describe them. Split them up into discussion groups and the walls reverberate. Have a whole-class discussion and they all want to talk at once. They have a fund of stories and experiences to share and frequently have to be led back firmly to the task in hand. "You must love this class," Helen said to me without even a touch of irony as I gathered up my papers after another exhilarating and exhausting session. I thought briefly of a colleague who had once covered for me and had likened it to facing a firing squad and I smiled.

But that's the trouble with teaching. It's a like an iceberg. Nobody sees the amount of preparation and planning that goes into a good session - all they see is the end result and they think we are just having fun. Billy, one of my young National Certificate students, once asked: "You get paid just for being here?" Ah but Billy, there are ways of being here which take a very long time to learn and to put into practice.

The trouble with being a professional is that you can make it look too easy. These unicyclists who attempt to juggle with lighted batons and who only succeed after falling off umpteen times get rousing cheers because they make it look so difficult. Maybe we should take a leaf out of their book. Take a peek backstage, Billy. See the panic, hear the hysteria, feel the stress levels. But lifelong learning is a two-way process. It's not just the learner who learns. And sometimes, Billy, I do marvel at actually getting paid for participating.

During our discussion of Jackie Kay's short story The Oldest Woman in Scotland, Jenny became quite angry. "No one writes about being old from the inside," she said. "Only from the outside and it's always negative." Jenny is our most senior member. You probably know her quite well. Jenny Wood Allen was on News At Ten the other week, and always figures prominently in the local press. In the thirties, she was reckoned to be the fastest woman on the cycle track. She used to finish work at five, slip a Mars bar into each pocket, jump on her bike and cycle to Glasgow. She slept in a barn, got up in the morning to take part in the race, and then cycled back home to Dundee. At 87, she is still running marathons and has recently joined our Wednesday class to sharpen up her creative writing. If you want an example of the new old then Jenny's your woman.

The next week she brought in a videotape of a programme made by the BBC about older people who were, well, still crazy after all these years. The film showed her in training, slipping through the still-dark streets of Broughty Ferry dressed in a canary-yellow running suit. One image from the film says it all. She ran smoothly and effortlessly past the traffic sign which depicted two bent silhouettes and the warning, "elderly people".

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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