Oldest Living Columbia Co-ed

Tells AllI’d never have known that a sprinkling of grayhairs had

infiltrated the sprawling assortment of graduates and undergraduates at

Columbia University, but for my friend Marvin. At 66, he has become a

full-time student again, furiously taking notes in class, cramming for

exams, writing papers, making friends and even hooking up with squash

opponents a third his age. Some of his fellow elder students are just

onetime guests, but a substantial number, like Marvin, belong to Lifelong

Learners, a Columbia program that entitles senior citizens to enroll in

courses for a fraction of the cost to matriculated students.

Two years ago, Marvin sold his printing business and cast around for

something to do. He was pointed to Lifelong Learners by a fellow retiree.

At first, he was going to the lectures merely for entertainment and

because–this is his official cocktail-party story–his wife

ordered him out of the house between 9 and 5, a claim that Jane, busy with

a midlife career managing music groups, strenuously denies. One day, a

couple of summers ago at our tennis club, there was Marvin poring over

Latin grammar books, studying for a summer-school exam. Latin! I was

impressed, and being something of a perpetual student myself, I resolved to

investigate further.

So I joined him and my husband, a professor of film at Columbia, at the

Symposium, a Greek restaurant where they have started meeting for lunch and

a Socratic exchange of gossip on Mondays before class, International Film

History, W3201. I questioned whether this student-teacher fraternizing gave

Marvin an unfair advantage, but I was assured that he is not being graded

in Prof. Andrew Sarris’ class.

Marvin arrived with his canvas attaché case, looking collegial

but dignified in white shirt, V-neck sweater and tweed jacket. “You

have to be careful,” he said when I complimented him. “If I wear

grunge, or a backpack, they’ll think I’m a sex pest. But if I

wear a necktie, the students ask me to O.K. their spring schedule, and the

faculty gives me that puzzled look, as if they should know me.

“It’s all-important not to be elegant. I’m very friendly

with the undergraduates. But if I arrive wearing a tie because I’m

going to lunch with someone, the student who usually sits beside me will

leave an empty seat between us. It’s as if I’ve suddenly become

suspect, or am impersonating an officer.”

He went from auditor to participant when a professor who taught a class

titled “Rome in the Age of Nero,” now retired, said, “If

you’re that interested, you should take Latin.” Another faculty

member told him he’d get more out of it if he did the work. “So I

did and I did,” Marvin said, “and the satisfaction went up by 50,

100 percent!”

After film class, a discussion of Jean Renoir’s La Règle

du Jeu , Marvin rushed off to a class on Seneca. “He was the spin

doctor to Nero, but was he a hypocrite or not? How much did he know of

Nero’s murder of his mother and brother?” Marvin asked, as if it

were the latest controversy in the Clinton saga.

The next day, before his class in medieval literature, I asked him, Why

the classics?

“I started with English but found the classics department friendly

and accessible, and liked the professors very much. The classes are small,

eight to 10 students in Latin, unless they call it ‘Sex and Gender in

Ancient Times,’ then you get 40 enrollees.”

Could it also be, I asked, that there are not only fewer students but

fewer Lifelong Learners? I’ve noticed Marvin is not overly fond of his

campus peers.

“I avoid their company,” he said. “They’re very

garrulous and discursive and sometimes ruin the class. There was one, in

‘Rome in the Age of Nero,’ who wouldn’t let the class

proceed. He thought it was a kaffeeklatsch between him and the professor.

The professors are very polite and don’t come down on them, but

another Lifelong Learner told him to be quiet. He got insulted and left the

class.

“I asked one [professor] if he minded having these old fogeys and

he said, ‘Not at all, in fact we’ve talked about it and we think

that if the students see you people so interested in these subjects,

they’ll value them more.'”

Marvin showed me a folder containing his papers and

exams–admittedly the best ones–some with rave notices by

professors. I especially liked the heroic couplets (written for English

W4301) called “Thinking About the Game,” which encapsulate in 30

lines of iambic pentameter a fierce singles match between the warrior-poet

and an opponent, both apparently wily strategists in the Odyssean mold, at

an age when “the days of aces long are past.”

He’s currently taking five courses. He prints copious notes in all

of them, which he later types up, photocopies and gives to students

who’ve missed the class. I asked him why he bothers, since his

handwriting is as meticulous and regular as any machine’s.

“Oh, a teacher once said, ‘See how nice Marvin is …’

so I kept doing it.” Let it be said that Marvin is a bit of an apple

polisher.

The next morning, I was late for Carmella Franklin’s class in

medieval Latin. I was mortified, especially as the day’s topic was on

Héloïse’s letters to Abélard, and that

carnal-Christian haute soap opera that our high-school Latin teachers had

carefully steered us clear of.

I got there in time for Héloïse’s gorgeously elaborate

salutation, “To her master, or rather her father, husband, or rather

brother; his handmaid, or rather his daughter, wife, or rather sister; to

Abélard, Héloïse.” As she recaps

Abélard’s letter with its threnody of woes, Héloïse

slyly suggests (according to Professor Franklin) that he may have been

laying it on a bit thick. As Marvin stumbled perseveringly through a

translation, I grabbed the English text and read up on their relationship,

and was stunned by Héloïse’s brilliance and strength of

mind. When their affair has been exposed, and he wants to make an honest

woman of her, she refuses, saying she’d rather be a mistress than a

wife! Why couldn’t we have had more of Héloïse and less of

Caesar and Cicero?

Marvin and I then sauntered over to Barnard, where he wanted to show me

the groined vault in the entranceway that he’d referred to to impress

a teacher in a class on architecture. While we were gazing at the Gothic

ceiling, author Mary Gordon happened along, and I introduced them. She

thought we must be discussing some work to be done on the building.

Next day in Prof. George Stade’s class in modern British

literature, there was a stimulating discussion of Ezra Pound’s ABC

of Reading . At one point, Marvin nudged me and nodded in the direction

of an elderly gent in the front row. He was clearly a Lifelong Learner, and

when he began to talk–making a rather strained analogy between Pound

and the Monet show he’d just seen–Marvin, looking exasperated but

satisfied, whispered, “I was hoping he’d talk in class so you

could see.” I began to understand Marvin’s chagrin at his fellow

geezers; it’s like Americans in Paris wincing at our compatriates,

loud American tourists.

By the end of class, Marvin had recovered his high spirits. He was on

his way to a medieval literature class at Barnard and bursting with

excitement. He had recently visited the new British Library in London in

order to glimpse the original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green

Knight , and he couldn’t wait to report his findings to the

class.

” Salve , Marvin!” I said.

“No, it’s vale ,” he said as we went our separate

ways.