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The Joy of Learning Is Contagious

Surrounded by students, I find myself reprising the education experience myself.


by Sarah Mahoney

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At a family wedding the other night, after the cake had been cut and the DJ had spun a half-hour’s worth of tunes, my husband leaned in and whispered: “OK with you if I slip away now?”

And off he went, upstairs in the hotel to the pressing matters that often call him away these days: Preparing for a biology lab or reviewing a chapter in his psychology textbook for a test the following week. As Dennis hits the midway point in his degree work, I’m getting used to being jilted for term papers, study sessions or “just one more chapter.” Chalk it up to the joy of learning, midlife style.

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Dinner conversations, more often than not, veer off to topics like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the tricky business of double-blinding studies, or—now and again—what poet Robert Frost was really trying to say. Between us, Dennis and I have five college-age kids, who chime in with their own thoughts on everything from microbiology and professors’ grading curves to the race for the best internships.

Some of the time, I feel left out. It’s been 30 years since I got my college degree (how is that even possible?). I have mostly good memories about my days at the Big U: Talking philosophy as we lounged around the quadrangle, late nights reading 18th century novels in the library, that dizzying feeling of freedom when you walked out of the last exam for the semester.

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But I’m also stunned by the difference school makes, and the way education changes people. A sociology and human services class has my conservative husband moving three steps to the left, at least on some issues. My just-graduated son is looking for a job, but already has his eyes on grad school in a few years. My recently graduated daughter loves her first “real” job, at the prestigious university where she earned her degree. And my stepdaughter, who graduated from community college, is already enrolled in night classes that will help her earn a promotion at work.

You get the idea: I’m surrounded.

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So yes, it seems I’m destined to head back to school myself, if only to hold up my end of the conversation. I’m tiptoeing slowly, though. I recently finished a class on writing mysteries. A MOOC in art history is next on my list, so I can finally tell a Vermeer from a Van Gogh, followed by a class in emotional intelligence.

That’s the thing. Apparently, the joy of learning is contagious.