Jake surveyed the room. The adult ed class at the retirement village was meeting for the first time and he sized up his opponents – no, that kind of thinking wouldn’t do. It was laudable that these folks wanted to keep their minds sharp, he reminded himself.
He’d volunteered to lead a discussion of current events. Experience had taught him that seniors had opinions and were not shy about expressing them. It made for lively discussions, but there were always a few types who could derail a class in a minute. He looked for them now.
There was Judy, her face stuck into her phone. Jake recognized her as a Fact-Checker. Whatever the topic, Judy would be on the Internet checking it out. Her joy in citing some expert or other would be incandescent. Extra points if she could directly contradict something Jake said.
On the other side of the room sat Freda, a Giggler from the looks of her. Her head was thrown back in peals of laughter. What’s so funny? was written all over the faces of people around her. The Fredas of the world took up a lot of time, especially class time when the whole group was forced to wait for their mirth to subside.
And then there was Ray, the Raconteur. He was holding forth in a lengthy story that had his captive audience darting glances around the room for escape routes. One Ray could suck all the air out of the room, causing people to slump over sideways and bleed from the ears.
Jake sighed. It was time to call the class to order.
“Everyone, everyone, if you’d take seats, please. It’s time for us to get started.”
A shuffling of canes and walkers ensued. Purses were rifled for one last tissue, cough drops were rustled from cellophane wrappers and papers and pencils were arranged. Seniors tended to be note takers.
“Let’s begin with a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in our country today. Do you think things are better or worse than they were a few years ago?”
Predictably, most thought things were worse.
“Why, when I was a boy there wasn’t any of this stranger-danger stuff. Kids played outside all day long and nobody thought a thing about it. Nowadays, they’re so pampered and protected they can’t even get up a decent game of stickball. Do they even know what stickball is?”
“Folks want too much. We never expected to start out with big houses, new cars, huge T.V.s and vacations every year. If we couldn’t pay for it, we didn’t have it. Simple as that.”
“And the politicians! All they care about is keeping their big, fat behinds in their seats in Congress. Never mind what’s good for the people back home.”
“Well, let’s talk about that. Do you favor term limits for elected officials?” Jake asked. “Can our state decide to limit a congressional term, for instance?”
Jake saw Judy working her phone. “Here it is,” she said triumphantly. “’In May 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995), that states cannot impose term limits upon their federal Representatives or Senators.’ It’s right there in Wikipedia.”
“What do you think, Judy? Is that a good thing?”
She looked at him blankly, then back at her phone. “Well, Wikipedia…?” she said uncertainly.
“It would take an act of Congress to control Congress, and they’d never pass it,” Freda said, and laughed until she had to dry her eyes. Her classmates smiled politely for a few minutes, then began to stir restlessly.
“Moving on,” Jake said, trying to keep the desperation from his voice. “What about that border wall?”
“Now, I lived in Texas for many years,” Ray began, crossing his arms and settling in for the duration. “My cousin’s neighbor’s nephew – what was his name? Ted? Tom? He had a dog named Chester Arthur, I do remember that. My cousin, not the neighbor. Cousin’s name was Jeremiah. Used to drive him crazy when I’d sing, ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ Anyway, this guy, the neighbor’s nephew, was a border patrol agent, worked in El Paso, and what he told my cousin…”
Ray was streaming live. Jake attempted to jump into the torrent of words and divert the flow, but it was hopeless. Ray just raised his voice. Jake grabbed a figurative tree branch and hung on, praying for rescue.
It came when a small woman spoke up from where she sat in the corner. Her voice was quiet but authoritative. “Time for lunch.”
Ray’s mouth snapped shut, Freda cut herself off in mid-giggle and Judy dumped her phone into her bag. Everyone rose, stowed away belongings and headed for the door with remarkable speed, intent on getting to the lunch line before the chocolate cake ran out.
Jake looked around the empty classroom, a room that vibrated with thoughts and ideas still to be spoken. It was his job to focus those thoughts, to find a way to for all to be heard. He must keep the group on topic, encourage give and take. What strategies would work? Breaking up into small discussion groups? Banning cell phones? Using a timer? He shrugged.
“Maybe next week I’ll just bring cake.”