Two years ago, in a post to commemorate my milestone of a 65th birthday, I wrote, “The numbers that would seem the most noteworthy are the primes, but we have opted to recognize the boring and uncreative numbers instead.” Today, I am writing to celebrate another birthday, when I have become one of those more interesting ages, the prime number 67. Well, actually, that noteworthy birthday occurred three days ago, but I had no time to write a blog post in recognition of the event. After teaching two classes, holding two office hours, and preparing an exam for my literature class, I rehearsed with the college chorus, drove an hour to the gym, did 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, and then swam 975 yards with my cardio swim class. It would have been the usual 1,000, but the teacher had prepared a sugar-free birthday cake for me, so we got out of the pool a few minutes early to celebrate.
Of course, as one of my supervisors pointed out, the goals I have achieved and the obstacles I have overcome during the previous year will be hard to surpass or even match. I have changed my lifestyle to include healthful eating and regular exercise, both cardio and strength training. In so doing, I have reached my weight-loss goal, ameliorated and even reversed some medical conditions common in aging people with a sedentary lifestyle, and achieved a level of fitness unprecedented in my lifetime.
Accompanying these physical changes have been even more notable improvements in my mental and emotional wellbeing. Liking myself so much better has led to a long postponed fulfillment of my vocation as teacher. My students see me more as respected mentor than as feared martinet. In one class this semester alone, one student asked to become my “teaching assistant” as a means of adding to the community-service activities on her university application (and I accepted); she is now my go-to tutor for students who need help with APA, MLA, and CSE documentation. Another student in the same class, when I asked after taking roll if anyone had questions or comments, offered one of the latter: “You’re very fit for an elderly woman.” My relationships with my colleagues have also become more satisfying. I planned the department Christmas celebration, gave a presentation on engaging students at the annual meeting of the College of Arts and Humanities, and inspired not a few of my fellow instructors to begin fitness programs of their own. One of my supervisors even told me that the other English instructors used to be intimidated by my intelligence and my aloofness, but that now they enjoy laughing and talking with me.
I have also ventured out of my admittedly stodgy comfort zone and enjoyed some memorable hiking and camping trips, discovering in the process a new and profound communion with capital-N Nature:
And I managed to conquer some long-time fears and get on a new-fangled British bicycle Pavel bought for me–with results even more memorable than those offered by Mother Nature:
Four days before my birthday, in the effort to end the even-numbered ennui of age 66 and enter into prime time 67 in style, I participated in my first mud race. Nor can I think of any activity more appropriate to usher in the promises of the coming year. My husband’s ex-wife, Rosi Eberhart, invited me to join her and a friend as “Pink Paws” for the Mud Girl Run in Jacksonville, Florida, on February 15. Talk about embracing silliness! The idea of comfort zone went flying right out the window on our drive to Florida after classes on Friday. And conquering fear . . . well, I managed to overcome my acrophobia enough to climb up and over one set of pipes far, far over my head (although I did chicken out on the second set and climb back down shamefacedly); this part of the race was undocumented photographically, so both my rousing success and my abject failure remain only in my memory. But thanks to the skillful photography and editing skills of my husband and guru Pavel, lots of moments will live in megapixels much longer than I will live in flesh and bone:
Yes, even though it is hard for me to admit that being silly and clumsy and muddy–all in the public eye–can possibly fit with my previous vision of myself, it was exhilarating to create this new self-image. And I look forward to what my newly entered Prime Time will bring. I am already thinking of another mud race–next time as the Muddy Mermaids who share my joy of swimming. I am thinking of beginning to train for a triathlon. And I have committed myself on my annual performance review to give a professional-development workshop on my fitness journey. I am reading French novels in my intermediate French class and hope to continue both reading the French classics (Le Père Goriot is first on my list) and improving my listening and speaking skills. I also look forward to new campgrounds (or stealth camping), crabbing at Lake Mattamuskeet, hiking in the national forests, and riding bicycles–we’re getting a tandem!–on the deserted roads in the Pocosin Lakes area near the coast of North Carolina.
More precious than all these adventures, however, are the anticipated adventures the heart and soul as I continue to develop myself in my one true calling, finally maturing into the teacher and mentor I have always dreamed of being. Although that rôle was instilled into me by a long line of inspiring men and women from elementary school through graduate school, I found it best articulated in a novel by Muriel Spark that I read when I was in high school. I have never forgotten the words from the end of the novel when the girl who betrayed her teacher has become a nun and a famous author; an interviewer asks about the influences on her intellectual development: “Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?” She responds: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”
Thinking very specifically of some of my memorable students (and looking enthusiastically forward to a new crop), I look forward to the day when a Broadway actor who has just received his first Tony, a psychobiologist who has made some remarkable discovery about gender identity, or a young woman with cerebral palsy who has become a leader in the field of music therapy will answer that same question by saying, “There was a Ms. Vicki Bozzola Derka in her prime.”