On a Monday morning, I’m typically out of bed for class at 10:30. This Monday, however I was on campus at nine in the morning for a special class in SUBO. You see, on Monday mornings at Brooklyn College, before most anyone else is around, a group of senior citizens descends upon the Student Center and take part in a series of classes not unlike the ones your average student is taking right across the street. Well except the one that I was there for. Because that morning, I was joining the folks at Brooklyn Lifelong Learning to take part in, you guessed it, international folk dancing.
Brooklyn Lifelong Learning is an educational program for senior citizens that strives for so much more than that. Despite the crowd that Brooklyn Lifelong Learning does attract and cater to, it is actually open to anyone willing to register.
“We really provide mental stimulation, education, cultural enrichment and social enrichment for older people,” according to Rona Goldwitz, a board member of BLL who acted as my guide through the folk dancing class. “Not everybody is a senior center person, which seems to be the general answer given by politicians as for what should people do after they retire.”
Upstairs, I was greeted by many older women who were warming up for their dance class. A few rushed introductions later and after putting down my things, I took a seat in the corner, notepad in hand ready to take notes. Quickly enough though, I was invited to join them and before I knew exactly why I had, I was holding hands with the group in a circle doing the Cupid Shuffle, led by Elaine Sohon, a longtime folk dancer who had only started teaching in the last two years.
Brooklyn Lifelong Learning aims to provide a well-rounded and affordable schooling that keeps their attendants busy and constantly engaged across various subject matters. Dwindling space on campus has made the organization, which is a non-profit, have to rent the spaces they use. In order to keep costs low, everyone who teaches there works as a volunteer. This has promoted a lack of a hierarchy to the point where Sohon referred to herself and her dance students as “peers.”
While it seemed at first like everyone’s attendance of the class was for recreation, after speaking to members of the class provided countless examples of other classes, lectures, and activities that they and others engaged in as part of the program’s very involved offerings.
Michelle Isaacson, an attendee and BC alum, told me that she deliberately seeked out the folk dancing class because she had taken it earlier in life and was in traveling companies in her twenties and thirties. She found herself looking for an outlet when someone at her local temple informed her about the specific course at BLL, despite her knowing of the organization for a long time. Isaacson has found more than just an expressive outlet in folk dancing..
“I think it’s the interesting music,” Isaacson said. “It’s a way of learning about the diverse cultures, really.”
Folk dancing isn’t all Isaacson or anyone does at BLL though. She and a number of others also take a science course that meets once a week to read the science section of the New York Times and discuss the latest developments. The course is led by Dr. Leslie Jacobson, a professor in Health and Nutrition Sciences and a “founding mother” of BLL, according to their schedule. The schedule was extensive, charting a semester’s worth of classes pertaining to learning other languages, acting classes, film classes, reading workshops, and book clubs, to name a few.
As much as this may sound like your traditional schooling, the folks who attend maintain that BLL isn’t, due in large part to a less rigid structure. “This is why Lifelong Learning is nice. Just straight learning and sharing and peoples knowledge,” said Isaacson, speaking to the lack of tests and homework, the common stressors of a college student. “I feel like going back to school, you know, without that pressure is really wonderful.”
Lectures with guest speakers, including one which especially caught my eye featuring Dr. Robert Cherry, a professor at BC, presenting a counter-argument to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, are also part of the schedule and help keep those who attend on their toes. Even now as prep for the discussion, a number of BLL attendees are reading The 1619 Project to have a proper back and forth.
I was able to step into a short story class where about thirty seniors (approximately double the attendance of the folk dance class) were gathered and discussing the short story “Children as Enemies” by Ha Jin. While I might’ve walked into this discussion blindly, it was clear that these students hadn’t. In a form almost foreign to me as an undergrad student, they were…having a lively conversation, successfully building off of each other’s points, leveraging their real world experience. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Goldwitz spoke to me about this very thing, saying “My first year that I started, I took a class. It was two semesters on Don Quixote, it was being given by a professor at the college, William Childers, and he was at the same time giving the same exact class to undergraduates. And he was always amazed at the difference because not only did we not ask him if something was gonna be on the test because we didn’t have tests but also as older people we bring a lifetime of experience sometimes to discussions.”
I’m no stranger to senior citizens taking life into their own hands where others would take it from them. But getting a firsthand look at a school for seniors that exists on its own, within the margin of the college, which seemed to be doing well was remarkable. “We are a hidden treasure of Brooklyn,” Goldwitz couldn’t help but say. I couldn’t help but concur.
Walking out of SUBO, I remembered how readily I got up at the end of the dance workshop and couldn’t believe how well and true the people at Brooklyn Lifelong Learning had caught me. Nobody looked to me, waved me over, or excitedly called for me to join in. The exhaustion that weighed on me that morning had quickly given way to an excitement at the novelty of the experience and the welcoming ambiance of a community of seniors not just excited to learn, but successfully making it a joy.