Entering College at Age Seventy

22, Oct 2013

Entering College at Age Seventy

Early this past spring, while enjoying an evening of solitude, I got to thinking about what I should do with the rest of my life. I had considered going into senior housing or a retirement center but the idea troubled me. I asked myself was I really that ready to give up and surrender to old age? I could say I had a mental and emotional war with my feelings but that would be a lie. I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen, the idea of giving up my freedom now was simply too terrifying to contemplate. So what can I do with all the free time and minimal funds I have? Then I remembered the words of one of the sweetest people I know, Jina, a Korean girl who, along with her husband Bin, had rented a room from me while she was completing her Master’s Degree at Washington University here in St Louis. She said, “Papa, you go to college. I be so proud of you!”

College?  I’m thinking about starting college at age seventy? Last time I was a full time student was in 1959 when I punched my English teacher for hitting me. I left school and he got suspended. Now, fifty four years later I’m thinking about fulfilling my dream of going to college full time. I may be crazy but hey, why not try it? Just no coed dorms and shower rooms, I’m too modest and I’d be too much competition for the young dudes. This could be fun!

Feeling as though I was setting out on a long trek, my first step had been deciding to pursue my dream. The next was to acquire the means to. Step one was pretty easy, step two was going to be difficult, if not impossible, or so I thought. Being retired and living on just my social security check doesn’t leave me anything extra for frills such as an education. The poor economy had wiped out what little money I had saved and I’m not named an heir in anyone’s will. Then how does an old man with no money find the funds to go to college? If he’s smart, he looks for the same resources a young man does. In my case, it was the Financial Aid section of the St Louis Community College website where I learned about FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). FAFSA is a gateway to many different sources of educational funding for students of all ages and it was step two for me.

Basically, there are two ways to apply for FAFSA funding. The first is meeting with a financial aid advisor at the college and the second going on line to the FAFSA website to apply. They both have advantages and disadvantages – I chose the website as it was easier and I could go at my own pace. It took me about thirty minutes to complete the application and an hour later, I received an e-mail notification that I had been approved for funding and assigned a student identification number.[1]

Did I mention I did this at about midnight on a Saturday night? You read that right, I had taken a major step towards realizing a lifelong dream on a Saturday night. I had no idea what I wanted to study, nor did I care at that moment, I just wanted to call somebody and shout it out, I AM GOING TO COLLEGE! Not a good idea, most of my friends are in bed at ten, so I chose option two, a bourbon Manhattan and the late news.

I had to wait until June to take step three, the ACT Compass evaluation testing. (I’ll cheat a little here and do a copy paste so the information is correct.)

“ACT Compass is an untimed, computerized test that helps your college evaluate your skills and place you into appropriate courses. ACT Compass offers tests in reading, writing, math, writing essay, and English as a Second Language (ESL). You will receive your ACT Compass test results immediately upon completion of testing, and your score report will include placement messages informing you what courses you should take and how to register.” “ACT Compass is not used like a traditional test. There is generally no “passing score.” Rather, ACT Compass scores indicate areas in which you are strong and areas in which you may need help. Thus, ACT Compass can identify problems in major subject areas before they disrupt your educational progress, giving you the opportunity to prepare more effectively for needed courses. You and your institution can use scores from ACT Compass tests to prepare a course of study that will be appropriate, relevant, and meaningful for you.”[2]

June arrived with the late rains of April and the ACT Compass evaluation test. I was in a state of nervous excitement as I went to the Assessment office where I signed in and got instructions on what to do. Then a lady ushered me into a computer lab (a room which has desks with computers on each) and assigned me a seat. I’m not a computer geek nor do I type well so I was very thankful the test was not timed. It was interesting though: easy to read, thorough and not graded. Once I was comfortable with the keyboard I dug my heels in and did my best. It took a while to complete but that didn’t bother me, I was having fun and actually learning something new. When I was done, I had to wait while the lady printed out the results for me. My high school math scores were midline, college math was almost non-existent but English comprehension and composition were 94 and 97 respectively. That took me completely by surprise.

Step four was Student Orientation day! Then came butterflies in the belly. The first major challenge for me in college was: what do I wear to go to school? I’ve worn uniforms or work clothes all my life. I probably have only one nice shirt and pair of pants. How could I go to school and impress everyone if I wasn’t dressed cool? Scary as it sounds, I decided to just be myself but cleaner. Arriving on time, I found the conference room without a problem and immediately decide I’m the oldest person within a hundred miles. I see bright, shiny young faces everywhere. I knew they were all staring and talking about me I know it. Oh well, I’m a pretty impressive guy so I joined the throng, listened to the somewhat boring introduction, received the handouts and waited in line to see a counselor. When my turn came, I was asked what courses I planned to take and I said, huh? I hadn’t considered exactly what courses I wanted to take, I was just happy to be invited to learn. We talked about my ACT Compass scores and what they felt I should do, I said ok, let’s do it. Next thing I knew I was sitting at a computer signing up for American History, Philosophy, Honors English and Algebra. I was committed, or should have been. I hadn’t been a full time student since 1959 and I had signed up for twelve credit hours of college? I hear Jina’s beautiful voice, “I’m so proud of you Papa.”  That did it, bring it on.

My next stop was for my student ID card and parking permit. This was an easy one. I just needed to prove I was me, have my picture taken and sign all sorts of papers. My official ID card was mailed to my home in about three weeks. Final stop of the day was Financial Aid. I had come prepared with copies of my online applications and related confirmations. As I handed the paperwork to a pretty young lady at the front desk, she looked at me as though I were insane. “Your paperwork is all in perfect order! I just need you to sign two forms and you’re done. Welcome to Meramec.” Guess I got that part right.

Walking out of the office I felt a little overcome. After so many years my dream was close to becoming reality yet something seemed to be missing. I meandered around campus for a while orientating my mind and spirit to the alien environment. I didn’t know what to expect or how I would actually feel once I started classes, I just had to know what it felt like to walk on campus. Everything was so different, and yet warm and inviting. I decided to just sit under a tree to watch people and listen to the wisdom of nature. As I sat there thinking, I noticed something to my right that seemed out of place. There, under a small bush lay a weather worn paperback book with torn cover. I picked it up to see if it had an owner’s name in it – nothing. A student needs books to help learn (insert light bulb here)! I am now a student, I need books so that I can learn!

Step five was the college bookstore but I didn’t have the money to buy the books I needed, or so I thought. Since it didn’t cost anything to browse the shelves for the books I would need, that’s what I did. I could always come back when I had the money.  As I was browsing a clerk offered her assistance. I told her I was a new student getting orientated and was looking for the books I needed for my classes. I showed her my class schedule and she picked out the ones that were available. When I told her I didn’t have the money to pay for them yet, she asked me if I was getting financial aid. I said yes and she asked to see my student ID card which I didn’t have yet. Then she asked if I had a student ID number and that I had.  She entered my number in the bookstore computer system and much to my amazement told me I was approved for a bookstore account which meant I could get books on credit until my financial aid funds were released at the end of the fifth week of class. All I needed was my official ID card and that wouldn’t arrive for three weeks. I was both excited and a little disappointed. I wanted a text book. I did have enough cash on me to purchase one of the required novels. So I did just that. Head high, shoulders back and proud as a peacock I strutted out of the bookstore holding my very own required college book. I was finally an official student.

Finally, step six, was first day of class and I was about as nervous as the Grand Dragon of the KKK at a Martin Luther King rally: I think I would fare better though. Walking in to class, I got those stares, you know, the ones that said “what’s he doing here. Is he someone’s grandpa? Maybe he’s the janitor.” Nope, sorry kiddies, I’m a student too. In class, we did self-introductions just like back in the 1950s.  Each student said his/her name and maybe a little about themselves. My turn comes, and what do I say? Come on Papa, do the obvious, tell them what they’re wanting to know. “I’m Dick. I’m seventy years old and I’m realizing a lifelong dream of going to college.” Reactions ranged from applause to stunned silence and a few, “No way man, you ain’t that old.” My favorite was the “Awesome dude!” Regardless what was said, the tone I felt was one of acceptance and warm greetings and it was truly Awesome Dude!

Step seven, at long last, I was in college and ready to learn. Unfortunately, I was learning things about myself that threatened to compromise my education. First is hearing, I am gradually going deaf. My hearing was damaged years ago when I worked as a paramedic/emergency vehicle driver. The driver’s cab of emergency vehicles was not insulated sufficiently to mute the sound of the sirens mounted on the roof, directly over our heads. No one thought of taking precautions to protect our hearing. I developed Meniere’s disorder, a fluid imbalance in the brain which presents as tinnitus, vertigo and progressive hearing loss.[3] Just when I have the chance to realize my dream it may not come because I couldn’t hear and couldn’t afford hearing aids. To my good fortune, the college has helpful people and I was steered to the Access office[4] where they do more than their best to help disabled students. The Access staff outlined what I had to do to get help. I needed doctor’s letter stating I have an impairment and current audiograph test results to verify the primary diagnosis. Once everything was done and approved, they provided me with an electronic amplifier to use in classes and letters to each professor instructing them to work with me. Things were going good until another issue arose. I cannot do algebra. I carefully listen to the lectures, take copious notes, do as much of the homework as I can but cannot retain the formulas long enough to pass the quizzes and exams. Back to the Access office and this time it wasn’t so easy.

Short term memory loss is pretty common to all ages but increases as you grow older, what I’m experiencing isn’t the same. With short term loss we usually remember within a short period of time, not now, this time it’s a total block. As my doctor told me, “You may be experiencing a cognitive impairment. We need to set up an appointment with a Neuropsychologist for a complete evaluation.”  Earliest I can get is 12/10/13, just before end of semester. The Access office can only give me limited assistance until a final diagnosis is made, I’m screwed in algebra. My hopes and dreams of becoming a space explorer are gone. But I refuse to give up trying.

Am I going to stop at step seven? No, each new challenge is a chance to learn something new. I came to school to learn. I am learning at school. I will remain in school to learn for as long as the Spirits allow me to. I’m a fighter! Today, if I were asked the most important thing I’ve learned in the process of starting college at my age, I would have to say – know yourself and do not be afraid to voice your limitations. If you are considering enrolling in college, please take the time to meet with the counselors in the Access Department well in advance of the start of classes to discuss your challenges and the support available to you.


[1] Word to the wise, if you decide to go on line to apply make sure you know what school you want to go to – that’s required information. I chose Meramec Community College because of its proximity to my home and the positive comments I’ve heard over the years from people I knew who went there.

[3]  As of this writing, I am legally deaf.

[4] The special needs office that assists physically and mentally challenged students to succeed.

Happy Mother’s Day – Your loving adopted son.

This is the very first essay I have ever written. It was an event I was involved in many years ago.

Let me know what you think.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY

Your loving adopted son.

Sunday, three A.M. a full moon illuminates a forest alive with night creatures. Their eyes aglow as if in wonderment as our emergency beacons pierced their world. Only the sounds of our engine broke the silence as we raced through the night. No need for the siren. We were ten miles from nearest major road, fifteen from any community and hadn’t seen another vehicle since leaving the hospital garage.

My partner, a trainee scanned the road ahead for sign of our contact, while I wondered what we were rushing into.  Our only information was a call received by the dispatcher requesting an ambulance to an isolated rural area. The caller did not reveal the nature of the emergency and his location directions were vague. He said someone would meet us on the main highway. That made me nervous! I decided to radio the dispatcher for police assist. Unfortunately for us, that meant a town constable at home in bed twenty miles away. On the plus side, the dispatcher at the time was my wife.  As she still liked me back then, she decided to request assistance from the Sheriff’s office and two other police departments from adjacent jurisdictions.

Suddenly, headlights flashed in front of us. A large, dark car pulled out from the shoulder of the road, its driver waving frantically as he turned onto a narrow, gravel township road forming a dust cloud between us.

Maintaining a safe distance back, we followed the dust cloud at a slower speed allowing my partner time to note any landmarks he could radio to the dispatcher.

Abruptly, the dust dissipated revealing the dark car with its mysterious driver stopped next to a grassy open area.  A dirt drive wound its way up to what appeared to be an old basement dwelling set a good eighty yards from the main road.  We stopped a few feet behind him.  As I exited our rig in an attempt to approach and question the driver he silently pointed toward the dwelling then sped off down the gravel road.

My attention turned to the dwelling. It was built into a low knoll, had large front windows and, thankfully, was well lit both inside and out.

“Something is missing!” I whispered. “No vehicles, people, dogs or movement.”

Slowly we inched our way up the drive. When almost parallel to the dwelling, it made a sharp right to an exterior wood frame, enclosed stairway atop the knoll. There, in the glare of our floodlights lay the body of a woman. Dressed in a blood stained, pale green nightgown, her head turned away from us, she appeared to be sleeping,  but it was an illusion. An obvious gunshot entry wound to the back of her head told a different story.

Immediately, my instincts and training took control.

“Shut off all our lights, give me the radio and get your ass out of this rig now!” I yelled to my partner. “Hide in the woods beyond the tree line!” Next thing I knew he was running fast and low towards a large pine tree.

I radioed the dispatcher, “We have a D.O.A with G.S.W.!  We need help fast!”  *

Now what do I do?  Sitting in a darkened ambulance, on a small rise next to an illuminated earth  home I was a sitting duck. If the shooter was still there, one well aimed bullet could have hit me or the large oxygen tank and I’m history.

What if there are more victims inside? What if they’re still alive? Call it brave or insane, I had to know. It was my job to save lives.

Flashlight in hand, I made my way through the shadows to the stairwell. Standing to one side, I held it high above my head to disguise my position and true size as I peered through the door. Looking down inside, I saw a single, bare bulb ceiling light, a child’s bicycle in a corner and a second body at the foot of the stairs. Like the woman’s, it was face down in a pool of dark, clotted blood. It was a man with a gunshot exit wound in the back of his head.

The bicycle – is there a child here?

Against all policy, I descended the stairs, stepped over the man’s body and entered the living room to a scene of rage and anger. Furniture overturned, appliances broken, dishes shattered and personal items everywhere but no child.

Cautiously I searched the remaining rooms. I saw a life style of modest income and means but no child or other bodies. I was relieved.

Retracing my path, I exited the house to call in what I’d seen. As I reached the radio to give the dispatcher update, the dark car returned. As if in slow motion, it appeared on the gravel road and turned onto the grassy area in front of the dwelling.

Cutting my report short, I waited and watched. The car stopped and the headlights went dark. The only light was from the dwelling and beautiful, setting full moon.

I could hear the radio in the ambulance. The dispatcher telling me the closest police unit it still fifteen minutes from our location.

Estimating the distance from my position to the car at forty yards, I realized I didn’t have a lot of options.

I saw one person, the driver sitting behind the wheel staring at the house seemingly ignoring me.

Was this a neighbor, friend, relative, curiosity seeker or…?

I had to know! I couldn’t be out here in the middle of the wilderness trapped by my own fears.

Heart in throat, I walked to the car while keeping my flashlight trained directly at his face.  I got within ten feet, when he suddenly turned on the interior dome light and looked at me. He was young, late teens, early twenties, long black hair, average size and scruffy appearing. He had a strange, peaceful look on his face, a calmness as though his burdens were gone.

As I attempted to talk to him, I visually searched the interior of the car with my flashlight. He had no less than eight guns and what appeared to be hundreds of rounds of ammunition strewn over the seats.

He asked me, “Are they dead?”

I believe so.” I replied.

“Good!” he yelled as he slammed his foot onto the gas pedal and sped through the grass to disappear down the gravel road.

There was a return to silence as a soft glow in the east announce\d the rising of the sun.

It was going to be a beautiful Mother’s Day – for most.

G.S.W. = Gunshot Wound

D.O.A. = Dead on arrival