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Teachings of Old

By Russ Smith | Posted 3/9/2005

One afternoon last week I scuffled about the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins, taking a leisurely route on the way to a lunch appointment at the faculty club with a college administrator. In general, I’m not a middle-aged dinosaur who laments the passage of time, figuring it’s a futile exercise to block out a birthday, but seeing all those kids racing off to class, half of whom seemed attached to a cell phone, did make my bones creak a little more.

Arriving a few minutes early, I bumped into an old friend, Rachel, who is now a hostess at the restaurant. While a student at Johns Hopkins, one of my part-time jobs was that of parking attendant at the club, and after the shift was over I’d join the kitchen workers—that’s where I met Rachel—for dinner downstairs. They were a rambunctious lot after work was done and away from the stern mistress upstairs, and they would look the other way when I’d sneak beer from the Tap Room. Rachel and I chatted briefly, asked about mutual acquaintances, shared a “how time flies” moment, and then my dining companions arrived.

In addition to my friend, there was an elderly couple, both in their late 80s, which suddenly made me feel, relatively, like a teenager. It was a fascinating 90 minutes: Ned, a 1940 JHU graduate, and his friend, Kitty, who took her degree at the Maryland Institute in ’42, might’ve been a touch fragile in walking up and down stairs, but their fluency in current local, national, and international news was uplifting and worth aspiring to.

Ned, a retired lawyer who took up sculpting at 79—a late avocation that’s become quite lucrative for him—is an FDR Democrat, which translates to a Joe Lieberman kind of politics, although unlike the Connecticut senator, he’s free to not mince words. Which meant that while he was once an ardent union supporter his current position is that the AFL-CIO is now too partisan and corrupt. And both Ned and Kitty, who at their ages don’t have to worry about the country’s fiscal problems in 2042, chastised the Democratic leadership for not budging an inch on Social Security reform. Ned talked about the dire threat of a dirty bomb smuggled into the United States, although he figured that his home in Frederick was probably a pretty safe haven.

This was definitely an old-school Maryland pair, typified by the ordering of a Manhattan before lunch and then switching to iced tea, and not considering anything on the menu but crab cakes. Ned, in a four-way conversation about the outsourcing of jobs—my mention of using a 1-800 Citibank number to request a new credit card and talking to a man in India set it off—was in a little snit about the lack of service he’d received that morning at a nearby JCPenney. He recounted the frustration of not finding a cashier to take his money. He also spoke fondly about the old Emerson and Rennert hotels in downtown Baltimore, the lifting of Prohibition, and the phone number of his Eastern Shore childhood home, which was simply “999.”

What struck me, after about an hour of conversation, was that kids today, in both public and private schools, could benefit enormously from occasional visits from such vital senior citizens. Ned engaged me about the merits of recent biographies he’s read—Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington stood out—and laughed as he imagined how the iconic Founding Fathers would fare in today’s ruthless media environment. When he told a story about a lecture he once received in eighth grade from a Latin and Greek teacher, it was a stark and troubling example of just how far education has devolved in the 21st-century United States. Forget Latin and Greek—that battle was lost a generation ago, and it’s worth arguing that a reasonable knowledge of Spanish is more valuable now—and think about basic facts learned in school that are now considered quaint. Like who fought in the Battle of New Orleans or the date Alaska was admitted to the Union.

A posse of literate octogenarians speaking at different Maryland schools each week would be an inexpensive and valuable resource to historically impoverished students (and, regrettably, far too many teachers) today. When a man or woman reaches a certain age, there’s little fear of speaking frankly, and it’s probably the case that curious kids, after an initial period of adjustment, would respect their guests and listen to their life stories. Consider Ned: Born while Woodrow Wilson was still president, he lived in a segregated Maryland, remembers when residents dressed up to go to downtown stores, fought in World War II, was a successful attorney during the Cold War years, and was in early middle age before the Orioles started playing baseball here.

Not surprisingly, both Ned and Kitty have little knowledge of e-mail or computers and haven’t the foggiest about celebrity-murder trials or the marital breakup of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. But they do read newspapers, keeping informed about the government’s business, and are breathing history books.

This sort of readily available resource shouldn’t be denied Maryland’s haphazardly educated students.

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