On a bright autumn morning, Ida Levin arrives for class more than half an hour early. She does this, she says, to get a seat in the front of the room. "I'm hard of hearing," she explains. "But I read lips."
Levin, 82, plops down in a prime space and puts her name card at the front of the table. Then she takes out her book, "The Miser" by Moliere, as well as a few notes that she's jotted down. "I'm not crazy about Moliere," she whispers to a woman beside her, and they both let out a laugh.
Slowly, the class fills up with more students, a former pediatrician, a retired Federal Trade Commission lawyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Like Levin, most of them have gray hair and wrinkles. Some walk with a cane. But enthusiasm is floating through the room at the Institute for Learning in Retirement near the American University campus, where 25 people have signed up for a 10-week course called Ideas Discussion Group--Comedy. "The Miser" is the first of four plays they will tackle.
"I've read and seen the play before," says Levin, who graduated with a degree in speech and drama from Brooklyn College in 1940. "But time has a way of making me forget, so it's almost fresh to me again. Plus, with life and experience, you get a better appreciation for what you read and see."
Teddy Handfield, a retired Catholic University drama professor, gets the class going by asking each student to read a line from "The Miser." The comedy revolves around what happens when the main character, Harpagon, wants to marry Mariane, who is in love with Harpagon's son, Cleante. Meanwhile, Harpagon has no idea that Valere, his servant, is in love with his daughter, Elise, whom Harpagon has arranged to marry off that very evening.
Levin is the first to read. She puts on her glasses and declaims, as Valere: "What, my charming Elise, do you grow melancholy after the kind assurances of your love? Tell me, do you regret having made me happy?"
Her voice is soft, though not hesitant. She listens intently as her classmates contribute their lines, some hamming it up like Shakespearean players.
When they finish, the class shifts into discussion mode. "Now what does this all mean?" Handfield asks.
Levin raises her hand. "It's a comedy of manners," she says. "An exaggeration of what would be found in a love relationship. It's an exaggerated--wait. Did I already say that?" she asks sheepishly.
Sixteen years ago, when Levin retired from her job on Capitol Hill, where she worked as a personal secretary to then-Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.), a colleague asked her, "Oh, Ida, what will you do?" But she says she knew she had enough inner resources to handle it.
"I love to read," she says, which is what led her, back in 1986, to the retiree classes affiliated with AU. Since a friend first told her about the institute, she has taken more than 90 classes, everything from an acting workshop to play-reading classes. "The thought of just taking classes, for no grade and no credit, just reading and doing what I love, is great."
For 20 years, the nonprofit, volunteer-run Institute for Learning in Retirement at AU has offered its members the opportunity for intellectual growth. The idea behind the program is simple: Bring curious seniors together and let them explore politics, history, literature, science and other topics. Retired professionals volunteer to lead classes on their subjects of expertise, or they embark on something entirely new. The program is intended to be more academic than arts and fitness classes offered at senior centers, explains Ann Petersen, its executive director.
Whether it's Global Terrorism and Radical Fundamentalism; The Complete Grandparent: Historical, Social and Psychological Perspectives; 20th Century Opera; or Major Trials in U.S. History, the subjects are designed to engage minds and stimulate discussion.
"Individuals are retiring earlier, and they're healthier and more active than ever before, and they want to remain that way," says Petersen. "Our people don't go sit on golf courses. They'd rather study Einstein."
That's the case not just at AU, but at colleges across the nation. Nancy Nordstrom, executive director of the Elderhostel Institute Network, an organization of independent institutes, estimates there are 500 programs for retirees around the country, including ILR programs at the University of Maryland, George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
The institutes "are like a liberal arts college in your home town," says Petersen. "In our case, it's a small college with no grades, no test and no credits. It's really just for the fun of learning."
At AU, the 400 members can choose up to three of 40 courses offered during two 10-week semesters. Membership ranges from $190 for one semester to $350 for the year. The dues, says Petersen, help to pay rent at Temple Baptist Church, where the classes are held, as well as contribute to program administration. In addition, membership gives retirees access to AU's library and fitness center.
Keeping the program going is not without challenges. The institute at AU is always looking for members to lead new study groups and ways to keep membership fees from getting too high, Petersen says. And with the retirement population surging, she expects demand for institute courses to continue to grow.
Tina Fried, one of the three founding members of the institute, says she believes the program is thriving because it transforms lives, keeping people vital and involved. A lot of people tend to get isolated as they grow older, she says, but "these programs prevent people from doing that."
She remembers one woman in her late eighties who was taking both Spanish and violin lessons, as well as a man who came in to lead a class with a shy, timid voice. A few years later, Fried took a class from the same man and he sauntered into class, his voice booming.
"What happens," she says, "is these people stop talking about their doctor's appointments and their ailments and start talking about education instead."
After a 15-minute break, Handfield's class resumes dissecting Moliere.
Handfield says there's a big difference between the undergraduate students she once taught at Catholic and the retirees
assembled here. Nineteen-year-olds, she explains, weren't always that engaged or eager to learn, "but these people are here because they really want to be here. They really want to participate." And they bring decades of experience and accumulated wisdom to every discussion. Not to mention outspokenness.
"I don't find this funny at all, two young people expressing love, and not knowing a lot about each other," announces one student, dismissing "The Miser" as overrated.
"It's comedic to me because of the exaggeration," asserts another.
"Being in love can be a tragedy or it can be very, very funny," adds a third.
As more ideas get thrown into the mix, Al Leon shuffles into the room, his cane dangling on his arm. He fought traffic to get here from his home in Potomac, which is why he's arriving late. He slides into a seat in the back of the room.
At 78, Leon sports a gray beard and black glasses that perch on the end of his nose. He used to own a publishing business, but now he has a lot of time on his hands and very few places he needs to be. Which is a big part of the reason he takes classes.
"I've always wanted to learn more than I know," Leon says. "Time exists, and I'd rather be doing something enriching and pleasant with it, like learning."
Levin agrees. The summer was hard for her because of the heat and her heart problems, which prevented her from
going to the pool or taking the Metro downtown from her Adams Morgan home, where she lives alone.
"I have a tendency sometimes to withdraw," says Levin, the mother of two grown sons and grandmother of one "very special" grandson. "So getting to the [institute] and being able to participate is important to me. It keeps me alive intellectually and prevents me from isolating."
In addition to the comedy class, Levin is taking a course on Shakespeare and another called 20th Century Worlds--Witnesses in Literature. "I have trouble with walking and with energy, so getting to three courses this semester might be difficult," she says, "but I sure am going to try."
As the bell rings, Handfield calls out for students to read next week's assignment: "Much Ado About Nothing." Levin can't wait.
Michele Capots is a member of the Magazine's editorial staff.