Destination Bucketville

And I found a ticket to ride
illustrations and photos by susan laughlin
Ephemera from the author's adventure in education

There’s nothing worse than an empty bucket list.

Finally it arrives — that relished free time after working for half a century. That’s 50 years of alarm clocks, commutes and deadlines, real or imagined. Myself? Retirement, or even just downsizing the workload, could open up new avenues for exploration — a turn in the road that can lead to, frankly, wherever I wanted to go.

Or I could sleep in.

Rubbing the sand out of my eyes, I realized I wasn’t ready for that two-year trip around the world for a Zen moment on top of a mountain. The time had come not to count my past years, but to think about how many years were remaining. Strangely, I found myself seeking out nostalgia. Though I had always eschewed listening to the “oldies,” my bucket list seemed to be coalescing around what I had enjoyed doing in the past, but had left along the side of the road for work and family commitments.

First up, I sought out and bought a 1960s console record player. Soon I was playing the golden oldies — basically anything released before 1984. I scoured the Goodwill store for albums and eventually built up a pretty corny collection. Just had to get that Tijuana Brass “Whipped Cream” album that was on the shelves at G.C. Murphy, the local five-and-dime, when I worked there — my first job way back when.

My next itch was to do more painting or drawing or something with a tool that was not a computer. I had heard about RISE (Rivier Institute for Senior Education) in Nashua before, first from a fellow with a double doctorate in physics and math who wanted to teach there after retiring, and then from my fellow Friends of Symphony NH member, Ginny Nedved Cook. She is a wonder, and a great role model for putting real gold in the golden years.

I had passed the minimum age requirement of 55 years for RISE attendance, so I headed down to the open house information session, which is held about a month before each fall and spring term. It was a beehive of activity with poster board displays of classwork, textbooks or great novels to be read. The facilitators, as they call the instructors, were there to explain and describe their class offerings. Turns out most classes are easy to sell. In fact, a few you may only get into by lottery. Former satisfied customers, the RISErs from years past, were back again for more classes. Yes, it was a sea of gray hair and fields of bald spots — and maybe even an aluminum walker or two — but there was lots of chatter. These folks were excited about their next learning opportunity. RISE Coordinator Cathy Lewis says about 400 people attend each session.

Class offerings were diverse and to the point. Classical drawing. Check. Intermediate pastel painting. Check. Climbing your family tree. Check. To fill in gaps in my knowledge spectrum — politics and conflict. Check. The secret roots of Christianity. Check. Science du jour. Check. American quandaries. Check. There are also many choices in literature (figured I didn’t care what other people thought about a book), writing (too much like work), and computers and photography (again, way too much like work). They offered physical fitness, but figured I wasn’t quite ready for chair yoga — though, to be honest, tai chi sounded interesting.

It was a crisp September morning — the first day of classes. At this point, I wished I had kept a journal. “Dear Diary, today I leapt back 40 years with a single tuition check for $130.” It seems silly, but it was fun to walk the Rivier campus paths along with the frosh and soph and the not-really-seniors. They didn’t seem to mind sharing the sidewalk, and I was soaking up their youth. From my perspective, I was one of them. From their perspective, I was probably the walking dead. (The math majors were most likely calculating in what year science would have to step in to prevent the same malaise from happening to them.) I just hoped they appreciated their youth and the road ahead — and that they’d be able to pay off their tuition loans.

I slid into my student desk in the classroom, happy that I could fit into it just like any other coed. The room was a sea of boomers and beyond, some topped with dapples of Clairol for a bit of color diversity. Several RISErs had iPads or notepaper at the ready for capturing important knowledge. Lord knows there aren’t too many of us with Memorex memories anymore, myself included — I took copious notes. It was just like a regular college class: vociferous questioners, attentive listeners and a few dozers. I had to laugh when Ginny started passing me notes in class.

The variety of classes was a perfect storm of nostalgia and knowledge. One instructor, David Wray, was a typical facilitator. He retired a few years ago and decided to devote his remaining years to his hobby — coin collecting. He wrote a book about ancient history based on the icons depicted on the ancient coins and is now sharing that information, for only gas money, to students, many of whom are also well-read on the topic. It seems the facilitators are as happy to teach as their students are to learn.

A view from the writer’s desk at a RISE class

The family tree class inspired me to get all those yellowing photos and missing pieces into my site for all of posterity who might care (hi, Betty). I even found an interesting link connecting Hannah Dustin, a Massachusetts woman born in 1657, to my grandmother in Wisconsin. Seems a mischievous Dustin left New Hampshire to help populate the Midwest, my birthplace. I came back to New England to complete the circle.

Of course, all the drawing classes were a great chance to buy art supplies. I just love pencils and colored pigments and good paper, especially when it all comes together into a so-called work of art or a sketch of a grandchild. It was a proud moment when the facilitator held up my self-portrait for all the class to see. Most were there to dabble; I was there to see if I could rekindle my art school days.

Outside of class, I took advantage of other campus amenities available to RISE students. I picked through the all-you-can-eat offerings at the cafeteria, first tempted by gallons of Gifford’s ice cream, but stayed on course with selections from the salad bar or steam table. I’d give the food a B-minus. 

On my way to the campus gym, I stopped to read the inscribed bricks in the pavement. There it was, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. “‘Better fit than not.’ — Ginny Nedved Cook 1975.” As a Rivier grad turned RISE student, she has been there since day one, and by now has taken just about all the classes that didn’t involve homework.

One afternoon leaving class I ran into a regular Rivier teacher I knew from contra dancing. I mentioned, “Hey, when you retire, you can teach RISE classes.” He quipped back, “You mean teach students who really want to learn.” Enough said.

Classes will start back up again in early September, and I will surely enroll in another round of learning, laughing and enjoying. I found the RISE class opportunities to be like a train station with many outbound destinations. The tickets are cheap, fellow travelers are genial and the journey is time well-spent. Eventually the tracks do end. Glad I got aboard now.

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