Second Thought about aging
I’m not a psychic but I predict that this year, the Year of Rabbit, will treat me more kindly than last year, the Year of the Tiger, the bloodthirsty creature.
In fact, I made a list under “What I am grateful for” and posted it on the refrigerator. One item reads, “I am a U.S. citizen with a clean record.” There’s nothing funny about this. I’ve lived here 45 years, three months and two weeks, but I’ve never been arrested for anything — no drug dealing, no DUI, no bank robbery. What’s more, since I had lunch with my friend Stella a few days ago, my preoccupation about aging vanished.
At 99, Stella still drives, still lives in her apartment in Overland Park where she has since 1992, and still teaches English — not to American students in a public school, but to immigrants struggling to grasp the language of their adopted country. I met her in the fall of 2007. She had invited me to meet her South Korean pupils, who regularly gathered at the clubhouse of the apartment complex every Saturday morning to practice English with one another.
Stella might have thought that I could give her students some insightful advice on learning English as second language, but we Koreans ended up talking excessively in our native tongue. We even had Stella say some words in Korean for us.
Stella had not changed much since, except that she has fallen recently and began to use a walker, which she hopes to rid of soon. What’s the secret that gives her the strength and mental alertness to teach at 99? She’ll tell you it’s in her genes. “Many people in our family lived long, healthy lives.”
Of course, there are other reasons for her remarkable ability at her age.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Find a job you love, then you don’t have to ‘work’ a single day of your life.” This was true with Stella. Thirty-four years of teaching in public schools wasn’t enough for her. After retirement three decades ago, she met a shy young Korean woman at the breakfast table in the dining hall and discovered that she could barely speak English and was pregnant with her first child while her husband was in Korea.
Stella volunteered to teach her English but did other chores for her, too, making her phone calls for her and checking on her. After the baby was born, Stella was more involved. Among other things, she called her student’s doctors for instructions on breastfeeding and general child care. Word spread fast in the Korean community and soon she began teaching more Koreans.
Stella was ahead of her time in all aspects of life. Having graduated high school in Moberly, Mo., during the Great Depression, she went to college with a $500 scholarship from a Christian organization. Back in those days, when not many women sought higher education, going to college marked her as different among her peers. But having been chosen to receive a sizable scholarship was like going to the moon in a spaceship.
Stella holds bachelor’s degrees in English and French and a master’s in education, both from the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Was being single her choice?
Yes and no. “Back in those days, the schools didn’t want a new teacher to get married and then quickly start a family,” she explained. “At the interview, they asked me whether I’d get married soon and if so, would I start a family right away? I said no, and I never regretted it. Having a family was never my priority, but teaching was. I really enjoyed teaching and I still do.”
Her dedication and love of teaching touched her students. One of her Korean students told me that Stella never charged her a penny for tutoring. “On holidays, I had to beg her to accept my gift of appreciation. She’s generous with her time, some days spending two hours with me, but when it comes to teaching, she’s very strict.”
Were all of her Korean students diligent about learning English? No, according to Stella. “One teenage boy was determined to teach me poker instead of learning from me. But most of them were serious learners.”
Of Stella’s former students, two are successful businesswomen, one is a professor of architecture in Korea, and others are homemakers, some here in the United States and some in Korea. A few of them still get in touch with her.
Today, Stella has only two Korean students and two Hispanic students but the number will grow this year. After all, she’s only 99.
“Besides your remarkable genes, what’s the secret for your longevity and good mind?” I asked.
She became pensive for a brief moment. “If there should be a reason beside the natural cause, it must be my Christian faith. I rarely become panicky about anything, knowing that God has plans for us.”
Who’s afraid of aging? Certainly not Stella.
The Kansas City Star Commentary
The Best Times