Are you ever too old to learn something new?
To save you reading further, I’ll tell you my answer now.
But if you want to understand the hesitancy, hope, heart, courage, growth, and rewards, I have a story to tell you.
When I answered the phone, the tentative voice of an elderly woman asked, “Do you teach art classes to older people?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied. “I teach art to people of all ages.”
“I’m in my eighties,” she said with a hint of fair warning.
“How nice,” I replied. “What is it you’d like to learn?” I asked.
“I’ve raised a large family of children who are now on their own. I nursed four ill parents until they passed, and I nursed my dear, ill husband until his passing. Now is my time, and there’s one thing I have always wanted to do my entire life, ever since I was a young girl.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I’ve always wanted to learn to draw. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine. But now I’m so old. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it. But it would make me so happy if I knew there was a chance that I could.”
The tone of earnest hope in her voice went straight to my heart.
“Can you write your name?” I asked.
“Write my name? Oh yes, of course,” she replied.
“I’ll be happy to teach you how to draw,” I said.
“You really think I could learn?” she asked, in a whisper.
“There’s only one way to find out, and that is to try,” I said. “I think you’ll be drawing after one class.”
“Really?” she asked with a mixture of incredulous astonishment and hope.
“Yes, really,” I told her.
We set up a meeting time and she came to my studio. A tiny woman with eyes that crinkled when she smiled, she radiated kindness and warmth.
“I’m Grace,” she introduced herself. “It’s so good of you to take on this old lady.”
“Age is a frame of mind,” I said. “You’re here to learn something new, the sign of someone young at heart.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said. “I’m very nervous. What if I can’t do it? It’s the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m so afraid I won’t be able to do it.”
“Then I admire the fact that you took the hardest step of all, and that is to come here today,” I said. “Let’s get started.”
She settled into the chair, and I gave her a #2 pencil and a smooth sheet of white 8 ½ X 11” paper. I gave her a clean eraser and told her that an eraser is also a drawing tool—not for mistakes, but for changes.
“It’s not about making your first marks perfect,” I said. “It’s about it giving it your best shot, looking at what’s there, and then deciding what to do next. Drawing is a process,” I said.
“All right,” she said.
She positioned her paper on the table and held her pencil with the veined, aged hands that had raised ten children and tended five ill loved ones.
With some initial drawing instruction, I taught her how to see the way an artist sees. We talked about line—what it is, how to translate it on the page, how to coordinate the hand and the eye. We talked about slowing down, paying attention to what is immediately before us, being patient, taking our time. And as her hand moved across the page and the marks appeared before her, drawings began to take shape.
“It’s like magic!” she exclaimed. “I’m drawing! I can draw! Oh, how I’ve always wanted to do this! If only I hadn’t waited so long! I’ve been so afraid I would not be able to draw!” Her words tumbled out in a mixed torrent of excitement edged with a tinge of regret.
“Now that you know how to draw what you see, “ I told her, “You can draw anything. The sky’s the limit!”
“You think so? But I’ve only drawn easy things today, “ she said.
“Don’t think of things as easy or hard to draw,” I said. “Some things just take longer than others because there’s more to see. Be patient. Take your time. I believe you can do it.” I told her.
“I’m going to go home and draw all week! I’m going to practice, work hard, and get much better! I can draw! I CAN DRAW! I can’t ever thank you enough!” she said.
“I admire your willingness to make your dream come true. It took courage. This is the first step in a new journey, and you don’t where it will lead. It’s an adventure!” I said. “I’m excited for you!”
I gave her drawing paper, a pencil, and an eraser. She nearly danced out of the studio and headed down the path to the driveway as if floating on air.
When she returned to class the following week, she could not wait to show me a stack of drawings of all kinds of things: objects in her home, an antique doll, flowers from her garden, leaves she would pick up. She told me she couldn’t stop drawing. It was as if a flood gate had opened and art was just pouring out of her. In time, she grew in confidence and asked to learn how to paint. Ultimately, she created and framed an acrylic painting for each of her 10 children. She told me her children remarked at how happy she was.
“I never knew my older years would be so rewarding,” she said. “This gives me so much pleasure. You don’t know how much this means to me.”
Time passed, and she had to move away to live with one of her children. Her eyes began to fail, and she told me by phone that art was becoming more difficult. But she could see paintings in everything surrounding her. It gave her great pleasure.
When I was a high school art teacher, a mother in her early 40’s was speaking to me at a parent-teacher conference.
“My son loves your art class,” she said. “I’m so happy for him. I had always wanted to make art, but now I’m too old. I’ll enjoy it vicariously through my son.”
“You’re never too old to learn something new,” I said. “Besides, you’re still young.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said. “I’m not about to take on that at my age.”
So I guess it depends on how you look at it.
Do you see a closed window of opportunity, or the view beyond?
Are you ever too old to pursue a dream?
Grace would tell you “no.”
Thank you, Grace, for teaching me to be brave at any age.
You may think I was your teacher, but you were mine.
(Grace’s name was changed for respect of privacy).