Today, I will share some about my recently completed class with Mills students and Oakland seniors.
This past week, reading the students’ reflections on the course blog and listening to their final project presentations at our final Zoom session, and hearing from the seniors, reminded me just how much all of us—students, seniors, and I gained from our collaborations and how important it is to be in conversation with those whose experiences differ from our own.
One of my goals for the course was to help students see older women as individual persons rather than through the myriad stereotypes our society has of its elders. Although the readings were chosen from among stories that do just that, the conversations went far beyond my expectations.
At our first class meeting, in which the Mills students met on campus, I asked them to write on one side of a 4”x6” notecard the first words that came into their minds in response to “heroine”; on the other side of the card, they wrote words they associate with “old woman.” There was little overlap.
For our second class on campus, students read Doris Lessing’s 1984 “Diary of a Good Neighbor,” the initial novella in The Diaries of Jane Somers. Lessing’s protagonist, Janna, is widowed young and without children; she edits a glossy women’s magazine, and her life is focused on style. Janna meets ninety-two-year-old Maudie Fowler through a chance encounter and develops a complex relationship with her. Janna confides to her diary “I was so afraid of old age, of death, that I refused to let myself see old people in the streets—they did not exist for me…. I did not see old people at all. My eyes were pulled towards, and I saw, the young, the attractive, the well-dressed and handsome. And now it is as if a transparency has been drawn across that former picture and there, all at once, are the old.”
Similar to Janna, my students report that they seldom saw old people. Even if they adore their grandmothers or aunties, they commented that they tended to see them exclusively in that familial role, with little sense of how they experience and see the world.
As I looked forward to our first visit to the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, I did not realize that, like Janna, many of my students were dreading the encounter with a room full of elders. Later, they explained that they had expected to meet a group of undifferentiated elderly women whom they imagined as somehow unlively, uninteresting, passive, perhaps vaguely judgemental.
Our first meeting with the seniors stopped the students in their tracks. The conversations across tables were electric and filled with surprises, insights, and laughter.
In their responses to that first meeting with the seniors, students reported that, despite our delving into the topic of stereotypical views of the elderly in the first weeks of the class, they were stunned by their underestimation of older women. The students were delighted and entranced by their conversations with the nearly forty sharp, engaging, funny old women of a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds, ranging from their 60s to their 90s, who turned up to discuss that week’s readings—Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “My Man Bovanne” and Cathleen Schine’s novel They May Not Mean To, but They Do.
I look forward to telling you more about our discussions in upcoming posts, letting you know about some of the student projects and the follow up to the class among students and seniors before introducing additional stories beyond those we read in class.