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Old Dogs/New Tricks

by Julia Sneden

I hope that whoever came up with that "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" line has spent a long time in Purgatory, paying for making such a ridiculous generalization. (On the other hand, I hope that whoever came up with: "No generalization is true including this one" ascended straight to epigram heaven).

I feel indignant on behalf all the friends, acquaintances, and family members who, after the age of 50, have taken on new learning experiences ranging from Elder Hostel weekends, to career shifts, to taking up crafts like knitting or crochet, to learning new languages, to travel abroad, to rock climbing, to - well, you name it. Learning new tricks gives life some zing, and never more than when the rest of the world expects you to slow down.

Oh, I know that the phrase should be regarded as metaphor, but even then I question its truth. I don't for a moment believe that we're doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of our youth. I know too many people who have taken their lives in hand and reinvented themselves. For instance:

    • A good friend who smoked 3 packs a day for 40 years made up her mind to become completely tobacco free at the age of 60, and did it.
    • A married couple I know sought counseling and rescued a relationship that had become bitter and destructive.
    • The nephew of a friend, who had always wanted to be a wood carver, tossed his banking career away, and moved to the mountains to become a successful artist.

    Mind you, there are a few tricks that we old dogs find especially hard to learn. Try, for instance, making changes that touch upon physical things, things that require muscles or nerves to learn new patterns.

    Shortly after I started lap swimming, it occurred to me that continually turning my head to the left to breathe might well wear out some of the internal mechanisms, or perhaps let similar mechanisms on the right side atrophy. I decided to breathe to the right as I did my smooth crawl up and down the pool. My first attempt was a horror. I rolled like a foundering ship. I swallowed a lot of water (that is what water I didn't breathe in). It seemed as if the far end of the pool had moved itself back by at least 50 feet as I struggled along. Maybe, I thought, I'll try alternate-side breathing first. That, too, was not easy, but at least I had the left-breath at every other stroke in which to grab some air. At the end of a couple of weeks, I was moving along smoothly again, and soon was able to do every third lap of the pool breathing entirely on my right side. I was disgustingly proud of myself.

    And then there was the matter of my pencil grip. At the age of 37, I started a new career as a kindergarten teacher. My first day on the job, the lead teacher, who was in her 70's and scared me every bit as much as she scared the children, watched me writing a note.

    "You'll have to change the way you hold your pencil," she said.

    "Excuse me?" I replied, looking down at my hand.

    "You're using your thumb and middle finger to control the pencil," she said disapprovingly. "You're supposed to hold it between thumb and pointer, with tall-man tucked firmly away. It would be very bad for the children to see a teacher holding her pencil like that."

    The battle of the pencil grip was bad enough, but the first time she saw me cutting a piece of paper with the blunt-nosed, child sized scissors, she threw up her hands in horror.

    "What kind of teachers did you have?" she snapped. "Don't you know that you're supposed to put your thumb and middle finger into the handle loops of those scissors, and stretch your pointer finger straight out beside the blades in the direction you want to cut? You have your thumb and pointer in the handles!"

    So the scissor grip was the opposite of the pencil grip. God knows how I got them backward, back there in 1941, but for the next thirty-plus years I managed both pencil and scissors pretty well despite incorrect gripping. However, conscious of my position as role model (and still terrified of the teacher), I made the corrections. It took a long time before I was comfortable with them, never mind proficient, and 25 years later when I retired from teaching, my pencil position lapsed gratefully back to incorrect status.

    Sometimes corrections can be truly useful. After I became the lead teacher, I was given a teaching intern to supervise. In our school, interns were not student teachers who had majored in education and were trying their wings, but college graduates who had not majored in education but thought they might like teaching. We took them into our classrooms for a year, a process helpful to them in making up their minds about teaching, and certainly helpful to us in terms of their energy, youth, and enthusiasm, never mind having an extra pair of hands to help out with the work.

    We also learned a lot from those interns. One year, we had in our class a little boy who came to us in frustration, saying: "My shoes won't stay tied. Can you fix them?"

    "Of course you can't keep them tied," the intern said. "They're not tied with a square knot."

    "How can you tell that?" I asked.

    "Look at the bow," she said. "It's sitting on an angle. If it were a square knot, the bow would be sitting at right angles to the tongue."

    "Well," I said, thinking to make the child feel better, "I can't ever keep my shoes tied either." We all looked down. There sat the bows, slantwise atop each of my shoes. Somehow, when my mother taught me how to tie, I got it wrong, and nobody had ever noticed. The simple solution was to go in the opposite direction as I passed the free lace around the loop. Voila! The bow lay neatly athwart my shoe.

    But just imagine trying to remember to reverse one direction in the automatic process of tying your shoe, after 60 years of mis-direction! That was one trick that this old dog really had to fight to learn. It was worth the effort, though: nowadays my shoes stay tied.

    Teaching is a profession that keeps you humble because it's perfectly possible to learn as much from your students as they learn from you (even if they are only five years old). But it's life itself that is the great teacher, for old dogs as well as for the young. Just ask anyone who has had to unravel the intricacies of Medicare or retirement plans: if that's not learning new tricks, I don't know what is. For that matter, ask anyone who has had to learn how to be a good mother-in-law (dicey, but worth it); a grandmother (different from parenting, but also thrilling); or the spouse of a recently retired male who wants only to sit in the house and sulk (not a fun learn, I'm told). Or ask a single person who has had to take on the financial, physical, and emotional planning for retirement years, solo. You learn to cope with these challenging new tricks, the joyous as well as the depressing, because life has handed them to you and refusal isn't an option.

    And for anyone over 50 who reads this column, congratulations: you've become computer literate, a big-time new trick, and probably don't need any of the above information!



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