Well, one more semester under my belt. Spring 2022 is done. Yes, I’m anxiously awaiting my grades (I did get one A already. Only two more to go). But I must tell you, I realize more each semester that passes that I’ve been missing the whole point of why I’m going to college. Sure I want my degree, and of course, I would like some validation for my hard work. However, that’s not the point. Learning is.
I started my college journey in 2016 at the age of sixty-seven. That came after working a long line of jobs and careers since I was fifteen years old, from New York to Washington, D.C. to Hartford, Connecticut, back to Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles to Long Beach, California. I once counted thirty-six jobs during that time, from selling magazine subscriptions to television executive producer to mentoring young people. I couldn’t begin to quantify everything I’ve learned about people, life, and subjects, from spotting stains on clothing to how to produce a live television event with more than twenty-four cameras plus the Goodyear Blimp.
Yet, just when I thought I had learned it all, I discovered that there is no such thing. Learning is living every day you are alive. If you open your senses, then you are learning something new. Even when you are doing the same thing from one day to the next, you can learn something new if you are open to it.
Beginning at Long Beach City College and now at California State University, Long Beach, I have tackled everything from Political Philosophy to Statistics to Mythology to Writing Creative Nonfiction. Along the way, I’ve learned that I am capable of opening my mind to new ideas and how to challenge opinions that I thought were anchored in concrete and immovable. I see these things because I refuse to stop learning.
This past semester, I took three classes, English 404 (Creative Nonfiction), English 470 (American Ethnic Literature), and English 385 (The Short Story). Each class challenged me with reading and writing assignments. Every day, I read a short story, a novel, a poem, and a nonfiction essay. I wrote critiques and essays. I engaged with my classmates in often stimulating discussions about what we had read and written. I loved every second of it. There were new ideas, perspectives, and directions to learn and think.
For example, English 385, “Music is Freedom and Redemption in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”
In 2020, New York City celebrated the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance. The Renaissance was a revival of Black culture and thought in music, literature, theater, and politics during the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century. On the centennial occasion, Baruch College of the City University of New York celebrated the roots of jazz and the blues in Harlem. Mo Beasley, a Harlem, New York-based poet and educator, observed, “If there were no music in Harlem, there would be no black folks in Harlem” (Bacchus and Banks). James Baldwin writes of this legacy of music and Harlem in his 1957 short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Blues, jazz, and gospel are the soundtrack for the estranged lives of Sonny and his much older brother, the story’s unnamed narrator. The music is a metaphor for the lives of Harlem, where there is pain one moment and hopes the next. One can find the pain in a juke joint along 125th Street, where the music is “something black and bouncy" (Baldwin 40). Spiritual uplift can come from an old-fashioned revival of jangling tambourines, testifying, and gospel music, bringing hope to Harlem’s people. The alternating emotions of vivid jazz and wailing blues pounded out by a musician’s instrument fill the air. The music in their lives is crucial to unlocking Sonny and his brother’s anguished and conflicted souls so they can break free and find redemption, even if momentarily.
English 404 “1968 A Year of Living Violently”
In 1968, I was nineteen, living in the Bronx. I couldn't feel how deep was the water around me or know I would almost drown in it. My mind and life were mired in an ocean of depression and anxiety. The turmoil was lurking on the horizon. Youth were challenging the world order. War was everywhere, in faraway lands, on American streets, in our souls. The war in Vietnam continued to eat the young even as we protested across this country. The champions of a peaceful revolution were assassinated. Racist forces held their ground against the forward movement of American history. The old voices told us to believe that America was exceptional. Racism, sexism, income disparities, and class warfare were only aberrations. They called us communists, rabble-rousers, and traitors. According to them, we were the real danger to America. They sicced police violence down on us. Bodies and blood flowed like a flash flood across America’s urban landscape. I battled for survival inside the cyclone, where my life would be defined by two lies: a “normal” life during the day and a dope fiend at night.
English 470 “In the Time of the Butterflies: Heroes, Dictators, and the People Who Love Them”
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is a fictionalized account of the Dominican Republic’s four Mirabal sisters known as Las Mariposas- the Butterflies. Three of the four sisters would eventually be surveilled, jailed, and assassinated for their protests against the tyrannical reign of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, known simply as Trujillo (Alvarez). Alvarez's narrative strategy is to tell their story from many “different perspectives and narrated by a myriad of characters” (Puleo). Alvarez based the novel on actual people and events. Lurking in the background of the Mirabal story are the circumstances that propagated the long dictatorships like that of the man nicknamed El Jefe. Trujillo’s formula for survival included the use of the secret police who carried out his orders, a Catholic Church that looked the other way until it could not, and the upper classes of Dominicans who benefitted from the regime. Then, there was the conspiracy of everyday Dominicans who spied and informed on others, actively supporting the brutal dictatorship or falling silent at the disorder around them. Those critical elements in Alvarez's novel provide a roadmap to understanding both the brutality and the longevity of the real-world Trujillo regime. The story also serves as a warning for supporters of democratic institutions that they must be vigilant to prevent future dictatorships.
These essays resulted from deep thinking, extensive research, multiple drafts, and allowing my mind’s imagination to soar to places it’s never been before. No matter the grade I eventually get, I feel more confident at the end of every semester that I’ve given my best at that time. The point is that I learned something new so that next semester, I will hopefully give something new and the best of that new. Damn, I love learning.
Postscript: I expect to graduate with a BA in Creative Writing in May 2024. I will be seventy-five years old. Next year, I will be applying to an MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. I expect to be seventy-seven or seventy-eight when I complete my studies. Now, that’s lifelong learning.