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Higher Education

Back to School

Turning 65 and deciding it's time to tackle college algebra again.

by Elaine Carlson



Editor's note: When Silver City resident Elaine Carlson decided to take college courses at the age of 65, she kept a diary. Here, at the end of her first semester at WNMU, she shares some of her entries.


Dec. 16, 2013

Soon it will be my birthday and because I will become 65 I will be able to take classes at Western New Mexico University for free — maybe there will be some fees but no tuition. At least that is what I heard soon after I moved to Silver City in 2008.

Of course, then I was too young, but I thought I would go into the school and tell people I was 65. After all, I started drinking when I was 19 and I told every bartender I was 21! But I am sure the university is not run by dummies and I doubt if I would get away with lying about my age there.


Elaine Carlson
The author decided to enroll in college algebra at age 65. (Photo by John Catsis)
Dec. 27

So what class to take? I am thinking maybe a math class. I already took college algebra and trigonometry but that was years ago. Now maybe is a good time to review what I have learned and maybe fill in a few of the holes of what I forgot.


Jan. 7, 2014

Now is an apt time to stop thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice to take a class?," and go online to scope out the facts. The WNMU website says people who are at least 65 can take up to six credit hours for $5 a unit, on a space-available basis. There's also a $25 registration fee and a $40 technology fee.


Jan. 8

Today I went to WNMU. I paid a $30 (not $25) registration fee and took their math placement test.

I have really forgotten a lot over the years. I get a score of 75, which means I should take trigonometry, but they don't offer it this semester. In the class schedule I see a section of college algebra that meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9-10 a.m., and decide to sign up for that course.

The person who picked up my completed form asked to see my driver's license. She said she needed to check my age. So much for maybe being able to get in for the discounted rate before I turned 65 — I got "carded."


Jan. 12

I wonder what the instructor will be like. In high school when I was thinking about getting a new teacher I always hoped I didn't get a "the students don't like me but respect me" type. Now all I want is someone who can explain things well.


Jan. 13

I wake up early with a sense of excitement. Today is the first day of my class. I look around and find a notebook and decide to make sure I have a pen or pencil. I end up sticking three pencils and four pens in my purse. I just want to be prepared!

I go to the campus and find the classroom. A woman is at the blackboard and she has written "Shannon Muehlhausen."

At 9 a.m. on the dot, Ms. or Dr. Muehlhausen faces the class. She says her name and tells us we can call her "Shannon." I am glad she hasn't earned her PhD. I had heard the rule is that you address instructors as "Dr." if they have but otherwise you can call them by their first name. I am sure I would have trouble pronouncing her last name.

On my way out I tell her that I am taking the class as a special student because I just turned 65. I also tell her I took college algebra but I feel a bit rusty on the subject. She asks me if I am going to audit. I tell her no, it is my intention to take the class for credit.


Jan. 15

Shannon explains the university computer program, Canvas. She's already put up the syllabus and will post all of our homework assignments. I think Canvas is super; it sure beats having to attempt to write down everything the teacher says. I really like this modern age!


Jan. 16

I get a big shock when I go to the college bookstore. The new price for our textbook is $219 and used ones go for $166. The last time I took college algebra the textbook cost about $20. I notice a sign advertising textbook rentals. I decide to go that route when I learn the rental fee is "only" $67.

I get another shock when I read the terms on the rental contract. It says if I don't return the book on time and in good condition they will post $219 and a $45 non-return fee to my credit card (I gave them the numbers and the expiration date).

I consider "fine print" or "highway robbery" to be interchangeable terms here. They gave me a used book that they would have sold to me for $166 but if I don't return it on time in good condition they will charge me $219 plus a processing fee of $45. How can such a contract be legal?


Jan. 17

After class I go to Walmart. The first thing I do is get a calculator, a Texas Instruments model selling for $9.95. I am glad not all school expenses have gone up the way textbooks have.

I leave the store with other school supplies: regular and graphing paper, a few pens and pencils, Advil and some Hershey bars. I know pain pills and candy are essential school supplies!


Jan. 20

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Because I am retired, holidays usually don't mean that much. Often I first learn a day is a holiday when I see a notice stuck in the door of a bank. I enjoy the day away from school and I really begin to feel like I am a student!


Jan. 24

I don't go to class today because my husband Brad developed a serious liver infection and I have to take him to Gila Regional Medical Center. His doctor told him to get there between 10-11 a.m. Briefly I consider driving us both to school and making him wait in the car while I am in class, but decide that is not such a good idea.


Feb. 5

I took college algebra in 1974, but math was taught differently then. In fact, things have changed so much that what started out as an attempt to refresh my memory of what I had forgotten has instead become going to a whole new class — well, not whole, because some of the things we are studying are the same, but I am essentially taking a different class.

A big change is that now we do a lot of graphing. Then (was it really 40 years ago?) it was just straight math. Math was a matter of doing manipulation and you had to remember that what you did on the left side of the equation you also had to do on the right. I could do a problem if I had the formula (and I always had a lot of difficulty memorizing them).

I like this new emphasis on graphs. It is very nice to be able to see what is going on.


Feb. 14

Shannon announces that the first test will be on Feb. 24 and says that she will post review material on Canvas.

As soon as I get home I start doing the homework. It seems so obvious but I keep telling myself that doing the homework is a good way to prepare for the test. Homework is one of the two things I didn't like about school. The other was taking tests. But such is life. I think back to that first day when Shannon asked if I was going to audit the class. I have to admit now auditing seems like a good option.


Feb. 19

After class I get into a conversation with two other students in the class, Beth and Angela. I tell them I am not a regular student and just taking this class. They say it is easier for me because I have to study and do the work for only one class. I am a little bit embarrassed by the fact so I do not add that I took the course before.


Feb. 24

Test Day (or is "Catastrophe Day" a better designation?). As I am going into the class I feel a pain in my gut — almost as if Paul Bunyan grabbed the insides of my stomach and squeezed hard. I am surprised I am feeling so much anxiety. I decide the best way to cope is to just concentrate on taking the test.

Shannon tells us we can use calculators and the computers at our desk but we can't use our cell phones. She explains she has no way of regulating them and that it is possible some of us might have made arrangements with people on the outside to help us. I think about saying something cute like, "Now how can I expect to pass this dang test?," but think better of it and keep quiet.

I finish my exam and give it to Shannon. I can't help but think maybe I shouldn't be taking this course.


Feb. 28

Shannon hands back the tests and I am happy when I see I got a 92. I feel good I survived and I tell myself taking this class hasn't ended up being a bad idea.


March 1

I decide I want to look up the history of algebra. YouTube has several good videos on the subject. I learn algebra is from an Arabic word because the first person to sketch out the details of this kind of math was an Arab living in Baghdad in the 6th century.

I look to see what else YouTube offers. I end up spending the day watching videos on functions, absolute numbers and quadratic equations and other topics covered in the class. I never really realized how much fun it can be to watch different people present lectures on the same topic.


April 2

I take the second test today and it is harder than the first one. I am glad that Shannon told us that the final will not be cumulative and so I won't have to deal with this material again on a test.

One problem I had a lot of trouble on and wasn't able to do — but after I got home I thought of the answer. Now why couldn't I have done that when I was taking the test? I guess I will never know how my brain works (or doesn't work).


April 7

Shannon hands back the tests and I see I got a 76. I console myself with the fact that I didn't bomb but I wish I had done better.


April 14

Today Shannon covers "limits." As she is telling how when you break distances into halves and kept going one half of the way you never get there, I kept thinking of the guy whom this concept was named after. Then when I got home I remembered it is Zeno's Paradox.

Limits is one of the things I remember well. In one math class the instructor couldn't give a lecture on limits without giving examples that involved sexual innuendo. I am glad Shannon is giving the lecture — she has better manners than that male math instructor I had so many years ago.


April 23

Yesterday I didn't feel well and went to Urgent Care. The doctor I saw determined I had strep throat and prescribed penicillin. When I woke up I told myself I would stay away from class so I don't expose everyone. Actually I feel so down all I want to do is sleep. I stay in bed and don't leave the house all day.


April 25

The penicillin must be working because I feel so much better. It is just that when I think of how I felt the expression "The Lost Weekend" comes to mind — I almost feel as if I am coming out of a hangover. When I wake up I know I will go to class, and I feel good when I walk in five minutes early.


April 30

Today I go to Albertsons to pick up a few things before I head to WNMU. I am in the checkout line and get nervous when I see it is almost 8:40 a.m. but figure I can still get to class on time. Then the cashier notices the deli forgot to put pricing stickers on the macaroni salad and coleslaw I got there. It is nice that the young fellow she gave them to for taking back to the deli is fast. I watch him run away with the two salads and I see him running back.

Then when I am out trying to turn onto 12th Street I see a lot of bicycles and realize the street is cut off. Damn it, why didn't I remember the Tour of the Gila? I take a roundabout way to the campus and I walk into class seven minutes late. I don't like that feeling.


May 9

Now we are near the end and our final is next, Wednesday, May 14. All week was "Dead Week" and Shannon spends all of the class time conducting reviews ("I am not covering anything new.").

Again I become aware of how different things are from when I was taking college classes before. She tells us using graphing calculators during the test will save us a lot of time. It is so nice to be able to put in a formula and to look at the graph that the computer generated to get the answers to the problems.

She also tells us to look for a computer calculator that can give us the answers to a quadratic formula. I know we are not exactly home free because we have to do the work from the information she gives us to derive the formula, but after you get it is so nice to be able to just do some plugging in to get the answers.

I remember really bombing one test because I forgot the relevant formulas. Again I realize I really like this modern age.


May 13

On the teacher evaluation form I write that Shannon is a good teacher because she explains things well and she doesn't make you feel like an idiot if you ask a question when you don't understand something. She and all the students have been so nice to me that I really enjoyed becoming a student again.

The final will be tomorrow and now I am about at the point where I know it is too late for me to do anything more to prepare. Of course, I hope I do well but even if I don't I am not going to change my mind about this being a good class.



Elaine Carlson moved to Silver City in 2008 with her husband,
his cat, and her 72 dolls.

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