I just got rejected for enrollment at a school. Maybe it was ageism, maybe not. But it felt pretty sketchy.
For many decades, I’ve had an intermittent dream of spending a month at the Institut de Français in Villefranche sur Mer, an immersive French-language training program that makes fluent French-speakers of learners at all levels. But with each passing year, I’ve progressively relinquished the idea—and now, after all, when I’m progressing through my late 80s, how much utility would I ever reap from the effort?
Then I realized that was the wrong question entirely.
The right question is: how much gratification would I feel the day I emerge from that program into the village, eager to speak French with French people? Even just that one day…
During my early days as a student, I had occasion to study Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew…and French. The only one I gained any ability in was French, but that was entirely book-learning. I had a ton of vocabulary tucked into my brain after three or four years of study and could fumble my way through constructing some sentences on paper or aloud, but I had zero capacity to understand spoken French coming back at me. So “my French”, as it were, has not only been useless to me, but—more importantly—a slightly taunting non-ability that I have casually lamented for a lifetime.
But two weeks ago, I got to watch Patti fulfill an equally long-held and unrequited yearning by participating in an archeological dig in Italy. Lasting just a few days, her digging in the dirt and discovering an actual “find” made up in height what it lacked in length. It was literally a dream come true for her.
And it got me to thinking: why not take the leap into finally becoming at least a little bit fluent in spoken French? Over the years, Patti and I have enjoyed visiting Villefranche sur Mer (an utterly charming harbor town nestled between Nice and Monaco), making me repeatedly aware of the celebrated Institut de Français perched up on the hill. And the idea of spending a month there, even if encased in a classroom all day, was always appealing. But the functional question always brushed aside any serious intent—what’s the purpose, Eliot, when you’d use your newfound fluency so rarely that it would probably just fade away soon afterward?
But as we returned from Patti’s wholly fulfilling “dig” in Italy, I realized there might be another purpose—not the functional longevity of the achievement, but just the sheer delight of it, in the moment.
I never doubted that I would be admitted. With three degrees in higher education and at least a smattering of study in five languages, it should be clear that I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I imagined they’d certainly welcome the substantial tuition payments, and by all accounts on their website, they are prepared to take students at every level, including the abject beginner (with “Little or no knowledge of French” according to their website). I was certainly north of abject beginner.
As to their open-door policy in general, it sounded like “C’mon down!”
“The student’s level is determined on the first day by aural and written tests as well as an individual oral test. The level can be adjusted during the session if required.
There is hardly any upper age limit: anyone can easily follow and derive full benefit from these audio-visual classes.”
Then, one sensible exception: “However, we may not be able to accept a person with a hearing or speech impediment that seriously hinders his/her progress and ability to stay in step with the other students…”
No such impediment impedes me. So let’s go:
“The minimum age is 21.”
“Thus, the students’ ages vary between 21 and 75 upward.”
Bingo! I’m “75 upward”! And they had said, “There is hardly any upper age limit.” Let’s get it on!
So I forthwith filled out the online application for admission to their month-long program that commences in January and also booked myself into one of their on-campus apartments. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head in anticipation of an email containing their advisory information for new students.
I did not anticipate the personal trans-Atlantic phone call I got from the Director of Instruction. All the better! Class act!
After introducing himself, he acknowledged their receiving my application—and then proceeded to make my hoped-for month in their program sound like the Bataan Death March. “Do you realize that this program involves eight and a half hours a day of concentrated learning, every day???” “Have you ever done something like this before???” “Do you realize that this program would be moving at a rapid pace where one’s ability to keep pace would be critical???” “Do you understand that no repetitions would be possible for slow learners???”
Then he moved to the real question he apparently had in mind all along: “I want to be candid and straightforward with you. Do you…did you...er, ah, well…is it really true that you are eighty-six years old??? Weren’t you born in 1936???” (He actually did say both those things about my age. I figure he must have checked my month and day of birth as well as the year, because I’ve not yet had my birthday in 2023. He had carefully calculated that I’m still 86, not the 87 I’ll be in late November.)
He then asked me how much French I knew, curtly said it wasn’t enough, and told me that I should look elsewhere.
Being taken (mistaken, I trust) for a doddering old fool incapable of sustained learning is a bearable sorrow for me. Patti promptly forwarded me links to numerous other immersion programs including one in Sancerre, itself immersed in the famed Loire Valley vineyards. I’ll be just fine.
But being dismissed just for being old evokes true empathy for those whose more-serious life aspirations are swept aside by others’ ageistic assumptions and prejudices—victims at both the upper ages, and the lower ages.
While mandatory retirement age was generally outlawed forty years ago, few today work at a single employer until “retirement”. Job fluidity is the rule, and this is one place where upper ageism shows its ugly head. I’m thinking about those people in their 50s and 60s who are at the height of their professional powers, being passed over for others available at cheaper salaries. I’m also thinking of those who are mistreated by the medical establishment because of assumptions about their ability to thrive. And I’m thinking about elderly widows skillfully and relentlessly targeted by internet scams.
But I’m also thinking about younger generations, who are dismissed by their elders on ageist assumptions that they are less worthy than what some older folks just love to call The Greatest Generation. I’m tired of hearing my peers sneer about how entitled or lazy younger people are “these days”, when my own grandkids’ (and probably yours') work ethics and accomplishments put to shame the relative ease with which we rode the 20th century American escalator to prosperity and security.
See, the problem is that ageism is just another form of prejudice. Pre-judging. Judging on the basis of a category, not a person. Once we get it into our heads that “those kinds of people” are “like that”, we’re programmed to notice and seize on any shard of evidence that might reinforce our notion that those people are like that, and to ignore and dismiss any perception that may challenge the validity of our pre-formed impression. That’s just the way we are wired.
While we have a limited ability to short-circuit that defective wiring in others, we do have some. When others mutter nonsense about “the younger generation”, we can politely offer illustrations that dispel over-generalizations. But beyond any such fleeting opportunities to take issue with others’ age-related prejudice, we can certainly amp up our own direct support for younger people's urgent efforts to heal the damage to Creation that our rapacious generations have inflicted on it. What they need is not snide envy but whole-hearted recognition and support for who they really are, what they are really doing, what more they are truly capable of achieving, and what gratitude we have for how they are living their lives.
Our best answer to ageism is to transform it into a new reason to love.