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Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

It’s amazing how, over time, one’s perspectives change.

As I’m on the verge of testing the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” I’ve thought back to my youth and recalled how reluctant I was to try new things but how life’s circumstances forced me to adjust my perspectives. I’m still reluctant, but not nearly so much as I was then. And that change in perspectives has enhanced my writing and enriched my life.

As a 16-year-old college freshman, I was so shy that when seated at my assigned table for family-style suppers, I purposely sat at the very end–so I would have at most only three people I’d have to talk to. I was so shy that I never mustered the courage to ask for any dish to be passed to me. If it didn’t come my way without my asking, I didn’t get any.

I almost starved the first couple of months of school that year. If not for RC Colas, Moon Pies, and Li’l Debbie Choc-o-Jells from the dormitory snack machines, I would

have starved. But my spare change quickly ran out, and I was forced to ask for food to be passed to me. (Reduced to begging, it seemed to me at the time!)

College forced me to venture out of my shell in other ways, too. In my freshman speech class, I was the only Southerner among about 15 Yankees. But I was polite, too shy to make fun of their weird accents. Thankfully, the instructor (herself a Southerner) did not try to change my accent. She just wanted me to enunciate more clearly.

When I was a sophomore, I was assigned to be the host at a supper table. That forced me to sit in the middle of the fellow students assigned to my table. And one of my primary tasks as host was to engage everyone at the table in pleasant conversation. Boy, did that ever stretch me!

In my senior year, I was made a dormitory monitor, or hall leader. (The supervisor of my dorm had nominated me. He, too, had been a shy guy when he had been a monitor, and I guess he saw himself in me and knew that being a monitor would teach me to get beyond my shell.) In that position, I had to interact with an entire floor, scores of fellow students–for better or worse, rich or poor, freshmen to seniors, in sickness and in health. When “The Great Epidemic” swept the campus that year, I was the only monitor of the six in our dorm who did not get sick. With the campus hospital full, the dorms became makeshift hospitals, and I had to deal with a couple hundred cranky, feverish, vomiting students and the overworked nurses who cared for them.

So from these and other experiences (including student teaching), I know that a young pup can learn new tricks. But what about an old dog? I’m still shy, reticent, and dislike putting myself forward, but at least I try (usually), and (thankfully) I’m not what I once was–in age or personality. And all of those changes have influenced my writing.

I’m beginning to understand how it is that older people seem to have little concern about what others think of them. I haven’t quite reached the point at which I blurt out for everyone around to hear, “Why don’t they turn down the AC; it’s hot in here!” or “Would you just look at that hideous outfit that kid’s wearing!” But I can now remain seated during a standing ovation for a performance that really didn’t deserve it. I can express my opinion without apologizing for it or worrying how much it will cost me. Or maybe I’m just becoming the stereotypical grumpy old man. But I prefer to think that this old dog is learning new tricks.

And now I’m about to put my own words to the test. I’ve always said that we should all be perpetual students, no matter how old we are. After all, as Will Rogers said, “We’re all ignorant, just on different subjects.” In other words, we all still have a lot to learn, no matter what our age. Only now I’m going to be putting my ignorance and my learning process on public display.

How so, you ask? I recently volunteered to be a docent for the museum of a local historical society. Meeting visitors and trying to answer their questions about a slew of subjects I’m only now learning about.

I’ve lived in the vicinity of the museum for well-nigh 15 years now, and I’ve been learning about the community and its history through books and guest speakers at meetings of the society. But the more I’ve learned, the more aware I’ve become of how much more I don’t know. So I’m approaching this task with no little trepidation.

Thankfully, the society’s board has paired me with an older docent, a native of the community. I hope she believes that old dogs (and a “furriner” at that) can learn new tricks.

Still, I’d feel more comfortable if I were dealing with my own native community of Halls Crossroads in East Tennessee. Then again, there’s a lot about that community that I don’t know, either.

Stay tuned. Maybe I’ll share some of the lessons I will learn as I get stretched farther and farther. (How’s that for assuming the positive?) And maybe I’ll gather a little grist for the story mill along the way.

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