Returning to School after Retirement

By: Hugh Rosen

Our society is aging at an accelerated pace and will continue to do so as we move further into the future. Hence, more and more citizens will be faced with the question of what to do with their time upon retirement. There is no single or uniformly right answer to this situation, as the choice must be a personal one and may be inclusive of a variety of activities.

Retirement need not be the nemesis that so many fear it will be. Rather it is an opportunity to reexamine one's life and pursue new possibilities. It may even lead to the materialization of wishes harbored for decades, but which were not fulfilled for one reason or another. What follows is the story of one man's solution -- my own.

For the last thirty years prior to retirement I had worked as a teacher and writing academic books at a local health care university. I was a tenured professor and originally planned to work until age seventy. Increasingly, as my sixty-eighth birthday was approaching, I found my mind dwelling on returning to school as a student at Temple University's Creative Writing Program, which offers an M.A. degree through the sponsorship of its English Department.

Would I be ridiculed for embarking on such an adventure because of my late age? Would I encounter ageism from my fellow students or even from the younger teachers? After enjoying so much autonomy on the job would I be able to adjust to taking instructions, carrying out homework assignments, and enduring examinations? Would my application even be taken seriously at such a late age? These are only some of the questions that plagued me as I contemplated my life-long dream that I had nurtured, but shunted aside for so long, of becoming a fiction writer, a novelist. Yet my desire to become a professional novelist outweighed these negative thoughts and I took the plunge.

The core classes were workshops, in which we shared our written work weekly for critiques by our fellow classmates. Each one was made up of twelve students. Such workshops were given every semester of the two-year program, in addition to electives in English literature, where we would be dispersed and integrated with students from other programs. Represented in the core classes were three generations of students.

About half of us comprised the youngest group, newly minted "kids" coming straight from their undergraduate studies. For some reason they were mostly males. Then there was a group of middle-aged women, including an engineer, a lawyer, a city water department executive, and a theologian, and one who had discovered a path to creatively cope with the empty-nest syndrome. That left one person older by far than all of them, and that individual was - you guessed it - me. Did the class accept me? Was I shunned, isolated, distanced, or seen as the wise old man; someone to turn to only with problematic questions? No, there was not one scintilla of ageism apparent at any time throughout the program. I was comfortable with all the members of the class and each of them seemed to reciprocate the feeling. In brief, I wasn't treated any differently from any of the others.

What can be said about my reversal of roles, sitting now as a student in class rather than as the professor at the podium sharing his expertise and facilitating student dialogue? Well, for one thing, it was a relief. The primary burden of making the class successful was no longer mine.

Beyond that, the key to feeling quite at ease as a student sitting in the classroom learning from another professor was the fact that with very few exceptions all of my teachers were scholarly, personable, and competent. There prevailed an air of informality, yet always remaining within a professional framework. These instructors were able to teach me what I had come to learn and help me to acquire the skills sought.

The nearest I ever came to a run-in with any of the professors involved an exceptionally academic teacher who was also the editor of one of the foremost journals in his field. He did not give out a syllabus the first day of class and he told us orally, as well as rapidly, the many books we would be responsible for reading throughout the course. I politely asked if he could prepare a bibliography for us to hand out at the next session. His reply was a rather haughty statement telling us about his important editor's role, which didn't leave him much time for such things.

It was only on that occasion that I had to use consummate willpower to refrain from lecturing him that his primary commitment should be to his students. Such things as research, his own writing, and editing journals were secondary, as vital as they may be in creating new knowledge and furthering his career. This was an ethos I've always felt strongly about, but was realistic enough to know that many professors do not live up to. Anyway, he turned out to be human after all and I must admit to having learned a great deal from his expertise. Our last class session was held at his home where he served us a delightful lunch.

One of the pleasures of being the oldest member of the class was the exhilaration I experienced as I witnessed the youngest students at the other end of the life cycle. Their dreams and aspirations for a successful writing career were manifest, despite the difficulties of making a living as an author.

One of our professors, a famous novelist, was not shy about informing the class of the obstacles and statistical unlikelihood of success that lie ahead. I found myself championing the position that we shouldn't see ourselves as statistics, but that we should believe in ourselves, work hard, and persevere, regardless of the chances. As a former professor I had had ample opportunity to play a role of my own in facilitating the growth of young people, but now I was experiencing that from a different perspective at an older age. Perhaps I had moved fully into the stage of generativity that comes toward the later stages of life that the popular psychiatrist, Erik Erikson had written about so profoundly.

In retrospect, I may have had more influence on the thinking of the younger students simply as a member of the class than I realized. I remember one day riding in an elevator with a young man in his twenties from my class, who ventured to ask my age. I was sixty-nine at the time and told him so.

He replied by telling me that his grandparents were retired and the same age, but all they did throughout the day was sit on the couch and watch television. He then went on to say how much he admired that at my age I was still actively engaged in the course of my life. (In truth, I really didn't feel very old at the time, although I knew that I qualified.) So perhaps we older people who return to school in retirement send a silent message to the younger generation that there really is life and purpose after retirement.

In the second and third semesters of the program we were each assigned a faculty mentor whom we met with on a one-to-one basis regularly. Out task was to be working on a novel (or selection of short stories) and to hand in each week the work we had done. By then the mentor had read and critiqued the writing submitted the prior week and a full discussion of our strengths and weaknesses were discussed, with emphasis on the latter. Between receiving feedback from "peers" in the workshops every semester and my mentor I soon realized that one couldn't survive without a thick skin and not personalizing the criticism, usually offered in a constructive manner. My mentor was tough and direct about her critiques, but supportive and encouraging at the same time. This was a necessary part of the process leading to the development and refinement of my creative writing skills. After graduation I continued working on my novel for several more years and finally had it published under the title of "Silent Battlefields." Going through the creative writing program proved to be an excellent transitional first step in my retirement that prepared me to continue confidently, on an independent basis, the dream I had nurtured for so many years.

I don't want to leave the impression that returning to school upon retirement is the preferred road to follow. There are so many human service organizations that need volunteers. My brother-in-law took up woodcarving and has become a superb craftsman. A woman friend of mine began painting and I see her artistry develop further each year. I have an aunt in her nineties who started making jewelry, deriving so much enjoyment from this activity. Regardless of your age, you are likely to face the decision one day of what to do after retirement. It's a very individual decision involving an act of introspection and discovery. For me, returning to school after retirement was a transformative experience that I cherish. The value of doing so continues to unfold with each passing day.

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