Class Day 2

 

When I first moved to the U.S.A, I found a serious disconnect between the philosophy “Give me your poor”, and the actual attitudes I was encountering working in Delaware. I wanted to discover if this had always been the case in American History.

The book I latched onto as my guide was “We the People and Others: Duality and America’s Treatment of Its Racial Minorities” by Benjamin Ringer. In the book, Ringer “examines the history of discrimination in the U.S., and looks at the treatment received by Blacks [sic], American Indians [sic], Chinese, Japanese, and Puerto Ricans”. They are all Americans but have different stories. The description does not do justice to the thoroughness of the book, as it also addresses other minorities: Jews and Italians. Each cultural story is unique and at times, the groups oppose each other and oddly at times themselves.

What I learnt from the book was the concept of “we” and “others”, although it was not the main theme of the book but one I continue to notice.

When a group of people are together and share some commonality (race, religion, ethnic background, prejudice), they form a “we”; everyone else is “others”. When the others leave, realignment is required. The ‘we’ group splits into a new “we” and a new set of others.

Groups not only define themselves by what they are, the “we”. They also define themselves by what they are not, the”others”.

 

On the first day of the class, because I was only student who was not an English major, I looked at everyone else in the class as “others. There were other times when I felt a part of a “we”, the three people of my own age. When I made a point that the teacher agreed with, he was part of my “we” (or vice versa) and the other students were the “others”.

By the end of second class, I felt like part of the larger “we”. I was no longer a part of the “we” differentiated by age, and I was no longer a part of a singular “we” of one non-English major student. As a result, I ws also no longer a part of the “others” that was their complements.

On day 2, I rarely felt a part of the teacher-student “we” of two. I now felt like a part of the “we” of students each trying to solve a problem and helping each other.

What had changed?

I suppose the simple answer is that the anonymity of the others had disappeared. Stating name, background and topic was interesting, but superficial. It established a connection, but not an association. Given that most people can’t remember people’s names, it was a tenuous connection.

Only when students started to discuss their research topic in detail did we see that we all shared a similar passion for our own subjects; an empathy. It was like a window into the soul. Even though we had very diverse topics, we shared a common goal and mutual respect for each other’s path. We felt that openly talking about our topic would not leave us open to ridicule because others were doing the same.

We all expressed doubts about our topics. Some were concerned about being able to get the information needed, some were concerned about the scope of the work and some felt that the topic under discussion was too personal to reveal.

This mutual trust (by sharing what we wanted to do and our personal fears) reminds me of a concept in creative nonfiction writing which I have discovered. It is called the contract between the writer and the reader. The writer presents information to the reader and states that it is true. If it is not true, the reader feels cheated and violated. This trust creates a bond; the writer and the reader become a sort of “we”.

Oddly, I don’t feel this same association with my professor. The association with other students was a process of discovery. If I wanted to discover my professor, I could just read his book “Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD”. His ‘inner self’ was not hidden. Nor did it need to be discovered. It is available on any bookshelf. It is not a mutual journey.

 

So, we have a real diversity of topics, and I only share those from my table (a table of 4 with each student presenting three possible topics). The one disappointed at my non-existent baby wants to discover if cloning a person also clones their soul. A student, who I suspect is the daughter of a surgeon based on the knowledge she had, wants to examine the treatment of the dead in different cultures, our attitudes towards crime, or an in-depth study of tea. My writing buddy to my left wants to examine why Japan still continues to have three alphabets, and why the Japanese Samurai used to test the sharpness of a blade by cutting some poor unsuspecting soul in half and why this practice survived for so long. And me; my topics are related to my personal interests. My topics are the collaboration of the Renaissance architect Palladio and the humanist Barbaro, Jackson Pollock’s painting “Mural” and its relationship to Renaissance painting, and a historical perspective on the press’s reporting of the Tet Offensive. The student to whom I spoke before class, although an American by birth lived in England for a substantial period of her life and wants to street gangs of the 1920’s in Birmingham England.

We each presented our topics and as a group we discussed the advantages and possible pitfalls of each.

For someone who considers that they have diverse interests, my topics were very narrow. Their topics were really board.

This is surprising since in our first meeting, they all l seemed to have the same interests since they all read fiction. However, for me, fiction is one amorphous blob. Maybe fiction has a diversity that I never considered. My diversity of interest in reading non-fiction has blinded me to a richness of variety in fiction; I am now reading H. G. Well’s “War of the Worlds”.

So, now I am part of a larger “we”; it is a “we” of “others’. It will be class of ever changing connections and common interests and problems. It will be interesting to see how ”we” and “others” fluctuate as we find similarities in our topics, and face similar problems presenting our research.

 

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Vignettes – The First

Last night, was the second class.

A lot happened: A funny incident before class related to offense or perceived offense, getting to know fellow students and the focus of the class now moving away from the teacher, realizations that Apple computers has lost touch with their customers (or maybe just me as a customer) and finally, what I am finding out about writing and myself (the ultimate cliché).

I see a lot of similarity between writing and creating sculpture. Every sculpture that I create gives me ideas for yet another 5 sculptures. The same is now starting to happen in writing. Each journey opens as yet to be explored avenues.

In sculpture, I make a bookmark by creating a drawing or adding the idea into the present piece. Sometimes, I will complete the current piece and create a related piece based on what I have learned. I may even destroy the original piece if I feel that the new pierce says everything that the ‘original’ said or more commonly, failed to say successfully. The more I create, the more I want to create.

So much happens in each class that I decided to write a series of incidents (or vignettes) as well as the blog report on each class. That will permit the writing about each class can remain more tightly focused.

 

So, let’s start with the first vignette.

 

Vignette 1, or as H. G. Wells would say “Vignette the First”

This vignette actually starts before class.

I need to connect my computer to the Wi-Fi at GMU and so I find an unused class room. A female student walks in and after asking if she can use the room, realizes that I am in her class.

An older male student enters.

She is there because she wants to read. I am there to veg. He is there to talk. I always feel sorry for people who are seeking someone to talk to; it is a sadness signaling a void. Being an introvert who feels that he must be an extravert makes me see it that way.

So, the male student is talking about reading and asks if we can read fast as he is finding it a problem in his studies. This is a really great question to ask fellow students. It helps you work out your baseline, i.e. to define what you know and what you need to learn apart from classwork.

The student continues to talk. “I wish I could read like old people”.

The female student grimaces.

She perceives an insult or insensitivity to me.

I laugh.

I am not at all offended. I wear my age like a badge of honor.

I am now older than most of the people who I always thought of as being old. I have outlived my father; I am now older than my father was when he died.

My father retired at 60 and was dead at 63. I have always tried to do better than my father. If I live longer than 3 years after I retire, that is something I will be proud of. If I don’t outlast him, I will be dead and certainly the disappointment will not kill me.

I have lived longer than I expected, and by looking at my pension and doing calculations, I can state emphatically that the insurance company expect me to live another 12.5 years. Seems short until I remember how much I have done in the last 12.5 years.

My family longevity is into their 80’s. My mother is 88, so I should have a good 20 more years ahead of me. My wife’s mother is 96, so there is a good possibility that we will still be together in our 80’s, albeit doing a lot of things (including reading) a lot slower.

I have only just started to be old, and I will be getting older every day. In fact, every day, I intend to get older by one more day.

 

At my age, one starts to get age markers, like certificates of merit.

The greatest thrill for me was going to the metro and getting a senior metro pass. It signified a sort of freedom. A freedom to get on the metro and go somewhere for no other reason than I could; a freedom to travel on the metro when I want because I am no longer slotting a life around 40 hours of non-life. It was like buying an airline ticket for a journey. This journey will be for the rest of my life.

 

So, call me old. I am old and proud of it.

 

Yesterday, my Medicare card arrived.

 

Class Day 6

So, the novelty of being a student is starting to wear off.

Last night was the best class ever.

It started by going to the library and pulling some Pollock books from the stacks. For a book addict like me, this is the ultimate pleasure. This made it all feel real. As I left the stacks, the sun was starting to set and the lights were coming on in the buildings. It was a transition.

I still feel a bit odd in class, but not because of my age. I am the odd duck because I see things totally differently to the other students. I see all knowledge in a spatial arrangement. I see an overriding structure in writings and this is becoming obvious in every comment that I make in class.

Last night, we discussed “Spinning in Space: A Cross Spider Adapts to Microgravity” by Elena Passarrello. This is the story of the spider named Arabella who goes to space with the astronauts on Skylab 3.

The main class discussion was about the difficulties of this poor spider as she tried to spin a web in space, tinged with pity for Arabella.

But in “Spinning in Space”, I saw a major parallel between the astronauts and the spider. The astronauts normally walk on solid space but in orbit, they float. The spider on earth floats through the air as it creates its web, but in orbit the only way it can make a web is to cling to the walls of its container. Both live happily ever after as they learn to survive in their new environments. The parallel is made obvious in the description of the astronaut on his spacewalk: “A sixty-foot cord spooled from his abdomen, connecting him to the space station”.

So, the novelty of being a student is starting to wear off and although I see things very differently to the rest of the class, we all share a common interest. That interest is writing.

 

In the class last night, we discussed the set readings (including “Spinning in Space”) and had a one on one with another team member to discuss our term topic (a sort of peer review). We also had a short assignment to find an image on the web representing a powerful instance in time and write about it.

 

I selected two images and wrote about each. The first topic was September 11, 2001, or more specifically, the collapse of the World Trade Center. The second topic was the Dorothea Lang photograph of what the Library Congress describes as a “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

Image One: World Trade Center

   At 8:45 am on September 11, 2001, the first aircraft hits the North tower of the World Trade Center in New York. At first, America thought this was an accident.

   At 9:03, a second aircraft hits the South tower. Now, there was no doubt.

   Employees scurried home to the safety of their homes accepting the fact that no-one knew how many suicide aircraft were still in the air and if one would land near or on them.

   At 10:05, the South tower of the World Trade Center collapses.

   At 10:28, the North tower of the World Trade Center collapses.

 

Image two: Dorothea Lang photograph:

   Mother Frances Owen Thompson with her children, Hoboken, New Jersey by Dorothea Lang is one of the iconic photographic images of the depression.

   The images shows a despondent mother with two children, possibly girls. Both girls are turned from the camera.

   It is a powerful image but raises an important image in art.

   Frances Thompson had three [seven] children, but it was felt that showing here with all of her children would have implied irresponsibility.

   So for the sake of the narrative and a great photograph, the facts were changed.

   The issue is at what point is art justified for art’s sake.

 

Tim Denevi’s point for the exercise was that “Trauma is the replay of an event”.

 

Another of my writing classes complete, and next week is Spring break.

On Saturday, I start computer classes at George Mason University on a different campus (Arlington as opposed to Fairfax). It will be both Saturday and Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm on alternating weekends for about 26 weeks.

The difference between computing classes and writing classes will be interesting.

 

Day 2. Class 1.

So, I arrive in Robinson B 106 and this time the corridor is pretty empty. It is 4:00 (the calls starts at 4:30), and there is no sign of students.

“Oh my God,” I think. “Last week I lost my class. Now I have lost the English Dept. If I keep coming here, I will lose the university”.

A woman of about my age arrives wheeling what appears to be a shopping cart containing a scarf and one very lonely book. She introduces herself and she is in “Research for Narrative Non-fiction”. I have a fellow student and what’s more, of about my age. She explains that the class last week was cancelled because the professor had a writing deadline.

We enter the classroom. She works out how to turn on the lights and we sit at a round desk. (Round tables fill the room signifying that this room is used for seminars, or group lunches.) She explains that she is writing a family history. I quiz her about who are the best professors to study from.

Meanwhile students arrive and stand in the corridor outside. They have obviously concluded that these two people in their room are professors and should not be disturbed.

Finally they come in. We have a class.

It is like a combination of landing on a remote planet at the same time as entering a time warp.  Shades of H. G. Hells The Time Machine.

Luckily I spy one other oldie at a nearby table. Should we all sit together? If so, maybe the room might tilt or we could start an age war. But, I like the mix and somehow wish I was at a more diverse table. (Maybe next week) However my level of discomfort is already enough in the situation, and I decide to stay where I am. It is close to the door, and escape is still possible.

The lecturer arrives in the room, and by his manner it is obvious that I am the only person who still is not a fan, although open to acceptance.

He gets some basic logistics done.

“What did you read over the break?” “What break?”, I think. “Was I on a break?” He is definitely not referring to the 20 year break since I was here last time. That is something that I am as yet unaware of. Oh it is some magic code or language into which I have not yet been initiated.

In turn, each person in the room states their name, background and what they read over this magical ‘break’. Someone even bravely admits that she did nothing.

 

I look towards the door. “Is it too late to escape?” This is weird. I have never even heard of the books they have read. I do no read fiction. I have only read a couple of fiction books in the last couple of years: “Night Train to Lisbon” and “I Claudius”. “I Claudius” is hardly fiction, and yet it aligns with the subject of this class. It was really strange for me. I can only imagine how strange it is for them when it is my turn.

I turn and say what I have read: “Thinking Fast and Slow”, “Half Life of Facts” and a book on computer programming.

If I was stunned by what the other students had read, I think they suffered major bafflement. For me, the names of the books were like a foreign language. For them, I named books whose titles had familiar words but were in some almost gibberish order.

Luckily, the professor latches onto one title, “Half Life of Facts” and asks me what it was. In my nervousness, I give what must have been one of worst explanations ever stated. However, I think he sees that it rightly aligned with the subject of the course and does not send me to the corner to put on the dunces cap.

“Do I still have time to escape?”

The class discusses logistics further and I am starting to feel more comfortable. We are all going to use Blackboard. “Great. I know what a blackboard is.” Yet the room only has white boards. Then I discover that Blackboard is a software application obviously familiar to everyone in the classroom; everyone, except me.

Assumptions are interesting. It is assumed that everyone in the class is familiar with Blackboard. The last time I was at GMU, 20 years ago the concept of students in a classroom even having access to a computer during class time was totally alien. We used pen and paper, and maybe a desktop at home. At that time, we were still discussing the possibilities of desktop publishing, a term that now no longer exists because it is assumed.

So, I will need to get this logistic set up later. Luckily, everything is displayed onto a board and I can follow.

Time for a break.

 

I have overcome my major fear: being able to last through a class without having to go to the bathroom. Age sucks, but one more uncertainty overcome.

 

We resume. I feel more at ease. We are still discussing English stuff.

 

We do a site read. I have never heard of a site read. Oh. It is a sight read. Not a place, but a process. The lecturer displays a piece of writing on the board and we discuss it. The key is that you have never seen the piece of writing before, so you have fresh and initial insight into it.

 

The sight read is about the first atomic tests. The piece is really great. I immediately notice that the concept of the light from the explosion is the dominant thing in the first paragraph.  Holy Hell; the word ‘light’ is in the second, and the third.

The lecture asks the class what they think of the structure of the different paragraphs. I do not know the lingo although I sort of get what he is getting at.

“Anything else”, he asks. So, I open my big uneducated mouth and say: “I like the way the whole composition is held together. It is all about light. The word is in every paragraph. It is almost the last word.” The lecturer rolls the text on the screen to the last paragraph and it is the fifth word from the end of the article. He sees it. One of the other students picks up my comment. I now have an ally. This guy appears to be a MFA senior student and class guru.

I am accepted. Well sort of. I have now progressed to the classification of idiot savant.

The lecturer concludes by talking about distance: distance in time and distance in experience from any piece of writing. I totally get it. He is talking my language.

He asks about the moral goal of the article. The girls in the class say it’s about how bad the atomic bond is, and all look appropriately sad and worried.

So big mouth gives it one more shot. “When something is written it is on paper and lives forever. What we understand is not necessarily what the writer meant or even knew.” “The article is a celebration of achievement. The first paragraph is about the success of this amazing thing. Then the writer explains how it happened. Then he says what has been achieved since then. It is a celebration.” The teacher smiles. The younger students are dumbfounded. I add that you can add morality in articles but if you are too heavy handed, you will immediately lose readers. The teacher smiles even more.

Class is over. Time is up.

I am still sitting at the desk trying to get organized.

And when teacher leaves, he smiles warmly at me and says “Thanks you”. He has a class with discussion. He has a class with discord.

For me it is great. I feel that this class will be great. Although not a writer in a class of writers, I will get a lot from it. What’s more: I got to the end without having to go to the bathroom.

Class 1 survived. Now I start to work.

 

My First Day at School

So today is my first day of class as a non-degree student in English at GMU.

I leave work early as I have some logistics to do. I get my enrolment info and take it to the cashier to get a financial statement, and then take that to the Parking Services to get a parking pass. A real hassle but the staff are really friendly, understanding, patient and helpful.

It has all been pretty rushed since because I applied late, I was only just able to enroll yesterday.

 

So everything is finally done and I go and park the car in its now permitted and honored parking spot (Lot A – General Parking). This will be its new resting place while I attend classes.

 

I then go searching for my classroom. The GMU campus is not new to me. I was a student in 1998, and had proudly shown my old ID to friends. “It has your SSN on it.” That is what I expect them to say. But what they say is “My God. You used to have hair”. Of course I did. I was not born bald.

 

“My God, I will be the oldest student”: I told a friend: “I will be older than most of the students”. “You will be older than your professors”. That makes sense since I will retire during this term and it is hard to imagine a retired professor. I am now older than most people in my life I remember as old.

 

I wander around the campus and over to Robinson B where my class will be. I sort of knew the campus last time it was here, but what I notice is an almost absence of directional markers, as if one should already know where one is going. Then I realize that this is another time, and pull out my phone and pull up google maps.

 

I get to my classroom early and wait in the corridor nervously. I feel like the new kid in a new school; a feeling I have not had since I went to high school at the age of 12. But this school is totally different from any school before.

 

There are still students in my classroom as the previous class is still in session and I watch them. Totally different experience than before. All of the students are sitting at desks with their laptops open, working away. Last time, I was at school, we were still using that archaic form of note taking: the pen and paper. At that time, we were still talking about the future impact of desktop publishing. It is like landing in a future version of what I had known.

So the room empties and I wait a respectable time before entering. It is empty and remains so. I go outside and check the room number. Yes. It is B106. Maybe R B106 is not Robinson. Maybe R is someplace else in some code as yet undecipherable to me.

I check the schedule and yes it is the right time and the right room. And yes. Even the right day; it is Wednesday. I did not check to be sure it was the right year. The idea of being there in the wrong year was just too unrealistic.

So I start wandering about in the hope of seeing my lecturer. I know what he looks like because I have watched a couple of YouTube videos featuring him. I even checked his rating on the appropriate site.

 

It has been a long time since being in this building and I find it hard to navigate.

I stroll the corridors looking for a sign of life. Like a deserted planet. My classroom was deserted except for me, but at least there was life in the other nearby classrooms. This building has empty classrooms and deserted offices. And each floor appears to be a different department, none of them the English Dept.

Finally I find someone in an office and ask “Excuse me but I have lost my class. Do you know how you find a lost class?” She looks up the information on her computer and tells me that I appear to have been in the correct classroom. Luckily she directs me to the English Dept. office.

 

I locate this on the fourth floor of Robinson A.

 

There are three staff working in the office. It is like a crowd compared to the rest of the place.

“Excuse me but I have lost my class. Do you know how I could find my class?” I repeat. The person closest to the door checks and yes it was the right room. “Isn’t there anyone down here?” I explain that I went down there and it was totally empty.

 

Luckily, someone overhears me and says that someone told her that she was not attending the class that night. (Nothing like ‘someone told someone told someone’ information.) It had been cancelled because the lecturer had a book launch “or something”. So we all decided that something was amiss, but we had no idea what and there appeared to be no way of knowing.

I am not one to let a good opportunity go to waste, especially when people feel guilty. I actually had time to work out some outstanding logistics for my enrollment. It was good to do this in person. To enable the English staff to put a face to a student name. Taking the class as audit, I feared anonymity. But my physical appearance (and age) certainly guaranteed remembrance.  Now, also being the poor lost lamb of a student who had lost his flock would become my badge of honor. I will forever be the senior student who had lost his class.

 

So, now I am enrolled, have a parking pass, and have met my dept. staff. All that is left to do is find my teacher and class.

If found, please return them to Robinson Hall B, Room 106.

 

And the Journey Begins

In April, i finally had enough of work and decided to retire. I gave 8 months’ notice to permit me to get things in order. Also, to let me watch the ship sink.

 

I really had no retirement plans except maybe working on the house, maybe moving or maybe getting the house in order and maybe doing some classes. I told people at work that I planned to spend the first two weeks of work pulling the daggers out of my back.

 

The state of Virginia requires institutions to offer seniors (over the age of 60) up to 3 classes per semester. Continuing education classes and regular classes are free if your income is below what is almost poverty level. Above that threshold, classes are still free but cannot be taken for credit. In most cases, not for credit means audit.

 

I had tried to enroll in nova previously but had never found suitable classes. That was 5 years ago. This time, i decided to enroll in horticulture. I have gardened for years and thought formal training would be fun.

 

Classes at nova in computer networking interested me but I doubted it would be the level I required, so I applied to do similar courses at GMU’s Arlington campus which was walking distance from home. It offered 3 courses of interest. These were each of 5 weeks duration on alternate Saturdays and Sundays. I applied and being accepted was easy. Then I was accepted by nova.

 

A couple of years ago, I discovered that I really enjoyed reading good writing. I found that well written articles often had a clarity that was not just the writing but also a clear understanding of the subject. I thought that studying writing might give me a solid way to structure knowledge. I applied to GMU as a graduate for admission in fall. That would require referees and a portfolio.

 

I really wanted to study nonfiction writing so i also applied as a both an undergrad ad graduate student. My logic was that if the graduate application took too long, the undergrad application would be faster. I also felt that if i was not accepted at a graduate level, i would be able to do undergrad classes and reapply for admission with my undergrad professors as referees. Graduate admissions were only for spring and fall. If i was not accepted in spring, i would have to wait until fall. Undergrad has spring, summer and all admissions. So, I now had both a graduate application for Fall and an undergraduate application for Spring.

 

I went back to check my enrolment application and couldn’t find the Fall graduate application.  Therefore, i applied for spring admission even though i would still be working.

 

So now,  I had 2 graduate applications and one undergrad application pending at the same time. That is one way to totally confuse any admissions dept., but GMU handled it well.

 

 

I still had official transcripts to submit. The odd thing was that undergrad required originals whereas grad would accept copies. Hence the grad applications although submitted later were processed a lot faster than the undergrad ones.

 

I was accepted as an undergrad student in English. That was great. The next day, the graduate approval came through.

 

So in a period of 3 weeks I was accepted into Nova for horticulture, GMU engineering school and both undergraduate and graduate schools at GMU for English.

 

Graduate English classes start January 28. Computing classes start in March. Nova starts once I find classes that I can fit in my schedule.

 

The acceptance as a graduate (although non-credit) at GMU in English excites me the most. It is a new adventure. What was supposed to be casual encounter will become a serious preoccupation.

Engineering classes at GMU will be a great endpoint for my career in computing, returning to what I have always enjoyed in that field. Horticulture at Nova will be just plain fun.