Personal Essay: College at 50


We met for the class at the historic Holly Theater in the old town square in Dahlonega, Georgia. I love this class and especially this particular instructor. The professor is a guy that I would guess went straight from high school to college and never stopped until he received his Ph. D., which is honorable, yet most people that do this end up becoming academic snobs with no “real-life” experience. Not the case with Dr. Rifenburg, he’s a neat guy.

We were tasked, as a class, to take a field trip and see Dahlonega, Georgia’s historic Holy Theater, and in doing so, we were preparing to write some press releases for the theater which operates on a small budget and a totally volunteer staff.

I’ll share a little background: I’ve been working on my degree since 2008. I have to work so I go to school halftime. I started at a private college online and then moved to the University of North Georgia in 2013. I remember feeling strange my first day of class. There I was, a 47-year-old guy with students that were, primarily, about 20-24.

I didn’t try to fit in with their age group. I’ve seen older students like myself try that—it’s weird, and the students don’t like it. Nope. I’m just me. A, now, 49-year-old man, and the students have always seemed to like me as I am.

I get to watch as young adults begin to figure out who they are and to form their goals and dreams. I’ve lived long enough that I’ve achieved some dreams, lost some, and have had some taken away through poor choices. Yes, college at fifty is a unique experience. And, I have to say that I`m thankful to do this at my age. I have the ability to appreciate this ride in an entirely different and genuine way. That’s the backdrop to this story.

As we began to gather, awaited our classmates’ arrival before we could start the tour, I noticed the late 40’s early 50’s decor of the theater. I had seen the Holly and its historic marquee before—a dozen or more times; however, this time, I was looking at the place close up: the cracks, the imperfections, and the beauty of its history. Finally, all of the students arrived, and a board member met us there to give us the tour.

Two things happened that reminded me of how much things have changed since my early twenties. The first thing that happened was when the guy, a man in his early 60’s who was clearly from Brooklyn New York, told us about a part he played in a production once in which he had to kiss the daughter of one of the other board members. Volunteers from the community operate the Holly. The board members are sometimes actors at the theater. They may even sell popcorn if that’s what’s needed at the time. In this play, a board members’ daughter played opposite this man (our tour guide).

In the guy’s story, he was kidding in an old fashion way, he basically told the classic story of “I got to kiss the pretty girl.” No one laughed really, except me. I got the joke. I understood the innocent humor of the past. Unfortunately, the “boy gets to kiss the pretty girl” story is not an innocent anecdote anymore—it’s part of the “rape culture.” I’m not sure anyone thought that exactly; however, you could sense that no one felt it was cute or funny. There I was, young enough to understand my classmates’ generation, and old enough to get the guys anecdotal story. It was sad to me that these kids could not find humor in the man’s tale of getting to kiss the beautiful girl.

Next was the tour of the balcony section. As we headed up the old stairs that were bursting with stories of the decades that they could not tell, I felt the weight of history. I felt the ghosts. I heard the laughter of the past in my head; that is until we entered the balcony area. The tour guide stopped us, and a hush fell over the small crowd as he began to tell us the story of the balcony. He said, “Do you all know that the United States was once a segregated society?” I felt a mixture of emotions as he went on. I felt the students’ inability to pay attention to his words because they were, to them, taboo. I felt his awkward conveyance of the historical fact that the balcony was once the only place the black Americans could attend the shows. Then, he showed us the entrance way that was reserved for black patrons. He made it sound like a walk down the green line on death row. It was a bit melodramatic. Yes, we all know that slavery was horrible and wrong, but I wonder when we, as a civil society, will forgive and forget. Besides, no one ever seems to recall that 750,000 men died to stop slavery. But…I digress.

Obviously, it was a horrible time in our history; however, the problem we have today is that men like him, and I, can remember and attest to the progress that has been made concerning race relations in America since the theater’s segregated balcony days. It’s just that we cannot connect to these students and tell them because the topic is too hot. They feel like they only have one way to assess these stories and that they must conform to the mold of societal mores. They are mired in a forced historical lens regarding history and truth.

I felt like I was standing back looking at a historical timeline—a real-life timeline,—and I could see both ends and relate to both ends. I was like the connection to both ends of the spectrum. It was in one sense interesting, and in another, frightening and sad.

I felt old today. For the first time, my age started to make me pause and think. Typically, I feel like I fit right in with the crowd, and the age difference is irrelevant. Not today. Today I realized that I will be fifty next month, and it’s bothering me. Today there was no denying the age differences and the fact that history can be rewritten and retold in ways that are not exactly helpful or accurate. I witness it all the time. And, even though I’m a primary source to some of this history, no one cares or believes. I now understand my grandparents.

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  1. This is a great story of artistic history. I like you went to university as an older student, except I went in the evening and most of my fellow students were over 28 and looking to start second careers so it made it easier to mix with them.

    I am shocked that students did not want to hear about the era of segregation, it corresponds with something else I have noticed more recently, the way there is a disbelief by some people that these events actually happened it is as if by ignoring these and other events from history they are saying we did not do it but they fail to learn that the reason we seek to understand, which is not to feel guilt, but so we do not repeat the errors of history. By ignoring the problem they encourage repetition.

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