Here’s the place for keeping up with us.
I have recently been part of a local school project called “Grandpals” where I spend an hour a week with four fifth grade students. This has caused the following reflection on Being an Elder.
Being an elder (May 21 2016)
The usual sedate quiet of the fireplace lounge of this seniors’ community residence is broken by the sounds of dozens of school children taking off their shoes and outer clothing. It’s another day of the Grandpals program and these fifth graders are here to talk with and ask questions of these elders, of me. At a time when we complain that nobody listens to the elders anymore, these alert school kids are eager to listen, and I wonder what wisdom I have to share in this world that I have aged into – so different from the one I lived in when I was their age.
They settle in, alert, smooth cheeked and active while we lined and slow moving elders welcome them. We talk and share around various questions and themes that their teachers have given them to explore; family, work, struggle, major events, achievements, faith. The standard opening line of the elder, “When I was your age…” begins the dialogue.
When I was their age I lived in an intact nuclear family of two parents and two children. Now several decades later with two failed marriages and one long term one, what can I say about family? My family stories are not unfamiliar to my group of children. Two of them have complicated families with two sets of mothers and fathers, a variety of step siblings and cousins and living arrangements ranging from alternating weeks to various combinations of parental visitations. They are more intimately familiar with the family life I experienced as an adult than the one I remember as a child so what can I share of my “wisdom”? They already know that marriage is work and does not always work out. They know that family ties continue in some way through separations and changes. They can accept this reality, unacceptable in the age of my growing up, because it’s just the way it is. It’s their family.
We share experiences with technology, the tools we use to get about, talk with each other, make life comfortable. I joke that my mother knew the horsepower of her first vehicle by name, but these kids are not yet invested in cars and power. They are busier with video games, a tech area beyond me, still back in the pin ball and Pac Man eras. The can appreciate the many effects of electricity, having experienced storm related power outages, but they, like me growing up in an city, are largely unconcerned about our flow of power. The whole technical support system that I still marvel at are simply part of their life, to be expected, accepted while they go about their life. I remember Margaret Mead’s saying that we are all immigrants to the present and, like immigrants everywhere, we learn the culture through our children.
How do you be a good person? A question provided by the teachers moves us into a difficult area. These young people are still largely following what their families have taught them and have not yet had to deal with problems of moral ambiguity of situations where different moral issues conflict. We talk about the nature of moral choices and stumble to find a common context and language. One of the students rephrased the question to, “How do I be a good Jedi?”. The Star Wars films supply the ground for issues of choosing the right course in life and the factors of greed, fear, and anger that prevent one from being a good Jedi, or a good person.
I find that movies and video games are informing these students about the issues and conflicts that might affect them in life. They have more varied and complex teaching stories than those of Sunday School Bible, or of the Uncle Remus stories. Being a movie and fantasy buff, I can almost keep up with them in the language and frameworks they are using. I take comfort in the idea that at least George Lucas’s mythology was grounded in the broader context of mankind’s mythology. This broader range of myths, creation stories and heroes’ adventures has always tried to tell the stories that cannot be told realistically, except through myth. As an elder in this Grandpal’s experience I cannot really lead in today’s mass marketed mythology but I can sometimes keep up.
As we near the end of term, the students begin to bring in the stories they have extracted from all our discussions. I had thought that they might have focused on my experiences with the civil rights movement or my use of electronic technology through the decades but they chose some of my other stories. They brought back stories of long summer motorcycle trips, of canoe camping with a raccoon pup on a leash, of meeting a bear in the woods. I realized that I didn’t need to try to impart wisdom. I just needed to tell the stories, stories of what adult life is about, stories that they have experience with or fantasies about. Later on they can earn their own wisdom just as we all do, by taking chances, making mistakes and learning from them. As an elder I only need to do what elders have done, sit around and tell the younger kids stories.
© 2016 Robert MacIntyre
The pictures of the European River Cruise are on this website under the travel menu.
The pictures of Sadie, now two years old are also up.