Thousands of students went back to school last month, marking America's traditional September rite. Young people ranging from big-eyed kindergartners to seasoned college seniors made their way through classroom doors.
Those enrolled at Emeritus College in Santa Monica may have a few years on such students, but they seem to have as much enthusiasm. About 3,500 Southland residents are enrolled in the state-financed adult education program of Santa Monica College, sampling from 100 eclectic not-for-credit daytime classes.
Offering courses from Shakespeare and foreign policy to post-stroke exercise and instruction in living with hearing loss, Emeritus College has some new classes, new ideas and a new home.
Founded in 1974 by Santa Monica College President Richard Moore, the school has just opened its first permanent facility on the renovated Third Street Promenade after 14 years of makeshift classrooms in Santa Monica community facilities and churches.
School director Maggie Hall says this has brought about "a philosophical change" in the Emeritus program.
"In the past," she says, "we tried not to publicize the program too much because we couldn't serve the students--we didn't have enough locations. But this year we decided to seek support from the city of Santa Monica to help us grow, and they're paying for a third of the rent for our new buildings. We've got 15 new classes, and new faculty members are coming in with excitement and energy."
Emeritus College was designed, Hall says, to facilitate the transition between work and retirement. "People have certain specific life learning needs in later years, and education helps them to cope with diminishing physical capacity and financial resources. Our prime motive has always been to keep the older adult integrated into the community with the mind working."
The program is specifically designed for senior citizens, and although most of the students at Emeritus are retired and between 60 and 70 years old, there are no age or residence restrictions. Most of the classes are free.
Both teachers and students say the program provides a climate conducive to forming friendships. Sylvia Rothschild, past president of the 34-member Emeritus advisory board, who has taught a class in autobiography writing for 11 years, observes: "My students write about themselves and share experiences, and from sharing they get to feel close. There have been wonderful relationships formed.
"Emeritus really satisfies a need so many people have for contact. It relieves loneliness and makes them feel worthwhile. When you take a class, you feel like you're going ahead with your life."
'Like a Family'
Bill Elliott, who leads another class, the 25-member women's Lyric Chorus, says: "The groupis very close, like a family. It's ethnically diverse, the way life should be, with people of every background, and we're all there because we love to sing together."
Elliott, a former professional choral singer with the Fred Waring and Ray Charles singers, took over the group in 1986. It frequently performs for local nursing homes, church groups and civic organizations.
He believes the class helps build self-esteem. "I'm trying to show them how good they are and that they can step into a more demanding situation," he says. "We've just made our first record, and when they heard the playback, one of the ladies said, 'Why, we don't sound old.' It was a big moment for them."
Ellie Mae Cramer, 68, veteran of at least 16 classes, ranging from band (she plays trombone and baritone sax) to stress management, says: "When my husband died I went into a very deep depression, and I would have committed suicide, but my college supervisors got me started with classes. Now I can't learn enough or get to school often enough, and I'm a different person. I never believed there was this much to life." Cramer's new life has also included an appearance on a senior citizen segment of KCBS' "Two on the Town."
Rita Bachtold, equally enthusiastic about her auto and home repair classes and its teacher, Bonnie Kramer, says: "Her idea is that a woman can do everything she sets her mind to."
"This is definitely not a playpen thing," says Harold Jaeger, 82, of his Emeritus political science classes.
'Broad Range of People'
"There's participation in classes, and I never cease to be amazed at the depth and breadth of experience in the groups," says Jaeger, a retired labor law attorney. "We have a broad range of people who were active in fields like finance, states craft and other disciplines, and it makes for an interesting exchange of views.
"In regard to getting some of these old fogies up off their duffs and out doing things, I think Emeritus contributes to their longevity and desire to continue living."