Retired school teacher hits the books again at CMU

Tom Dercola proves learning knows no age limit

Photo: St. James-Assiniboia School Division Photo: St. James-Assiniboia School Division

Where does our learning journey end? Is it after high school or university? Maybe it's once we get comfortable in our careers. Perhaps it's after retirement when we can kick back and enjoy golden years in quiet bliss.

Well, Tom Dercola, a 77-year-old retired high school teacher, proves that learning is a lifelong endeavour.

In 2020, 13 years after retirement, Dercola began taking courses offered through CMU's English department. He felt his experience teaching the subject would make for a relatively smooth transition into the subject matter.

But what he found when he entered the classroom was beyond his expectations. "I think back to my university days, when we were exposed to Shakespeare, Chaucer, and what have you, and it didn't mean a lot. It was writing the exam, reading the material, getting it out of the way," says Dercola.

"Much of what [the CMU professors were] teaching was contemporary. It dealt with social issues, but it was still within the concept of that English course. It was very refreshing."

Dercola says he presumed attending a Mennonite university would follow an orthodox approach to the subject matter but was surprised when much of the material was written by queer authors and dealt with issues affecting marginalized groups.

"In reading some of these materials, I thought, 'Wow, this is a really interesting aspect to the coursework.'"

Dercola, last in a university classroom in 1969, says the advanced social rhetoric was indeed thought-provoking. However, he admits that these courses were the first time he attended a class with a female instructor. "They brought a different perspective to things," he says. "I really enjoyed it."

Dercola prefers to look at a changing world as an opportunity to learn and relearn new things.

"As life goes on, you start relating some of these things back to your own personal experiences, and they take on new meaning. So I find myself re-reading material today that I read years ago," he acknowledges. "It has so much more meaning today than it would have back in my initial university days."

Although education has been his life's work, Dercola doesn't see university as being the only means by which learning is done. He says he witnessed too many of his fellow retirees fall into unhealthy inertia after retirement.

"When I retired from teaching, I had set some goals for myself. I wanted to work in a warehouse, so I went to Manitoba Harvest and volunteered there for about eight years. I loved animals and volunteered with the Humane Society for about seven years. I wanted to get my health back, so I started working on walking, weightlifting, and exercise, and I accomplished that. And for some strange reason, I wanted to be a disk jockey."

Dercola got on CJNU-FM in 2009 and has been producing a two-hour weekly program.

There is a motto that Dercola lives by these days: "If you let the grass grow under your feet, pretty soon it's going to grow over your head."

Derola suggests others in his peer group should consider registering at CMU or auditing a course or two. He cites the smaller campus, easy (and free) parking, and the welcoming faculty as things that remove intimidation and barriers to returing to the classroom.

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