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Nichols: Reflecting on a journey of eight decades

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Though it is difficult for me to accept, I turn 80 this month, having been born in 1927, exactly 80 years back.

I cannot deny my status now: I am officially old. It was nice being young. Better being a young adult. Then middle age crept up and passed.

Finally, I reached senior citizen status when a little old lady on the metro bus in Beijing got up and offered me her seat. I tried to refuse but she insisted. Guess I looked tired (and I was). Perhaps she felt sorry for me.

Now at 80, I must accept several truths. My future is running out. Once I read this inscription on a tombstone: "Prepare yourself to follow me. As I now am, you soon will be." I hope I am preparing.

Perhaps I can share something from my life’s experiences that might be interesting or informative.

My first career was music. I learned to play the saxophone in the seventh grade. From ninth to 12th grades, I was in our marching band (played at all football games at home and some in nearby towns) and also the high school orchestra. Both introduced me to marches, Broadway and movie music, and extracts from some of the great classics.

In the 12th grade, I became a member of a dance band and joined the musician’s union so I could legally play six nights a week on the Jacksonville Beach Pier. We were booked for 3« months in 1945. My salary was $50 a week, a lot in those days.

I needed the GI Bill to help with my college expenses so after graduation in 1946, I enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Army Air Corps. I was trained as a cryptographer, but never served in that job. Instead I played saxophone in the Fifth Army Air Corps band, out of Nagoya, Japan.

More recently after I retired to Gainesville, I discovered The Believer’s Band at First United Methodist Church. I dusted off my old sax and played for several years. Now I play in the jazz band and small ensemble. It is much better to make music than just to listen to it. Music is food for the soul.

My second career was as a governmental bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. I served five years as an intelligence research analyst, and three years as a personnel officer. I found the intelligence activities not as exciting as James Bond, but interesting. I left that job to return to graduate school to earn my Ph.D. so I could teach college.

My main career was teaching. I got off to a bad start in academia. I had to withdraw from my first attempt at first grade. I had to repeat it. Throughout elementary school I missed an average of three of five school days. My report card had "absent too much" written where grades were supposed to be.

I was never promoted for any of the first five grades. Instead, I was sent up to the higher grade on trial. I surprised my teachers that I could catch up with the other students since I missed so many classes. Finally, I outgrew asthma in middle school and became a regular student.

Asthma had kept me from being very athletic. I found I could make good grades by working hard, and that drove me, finally, into a career of being a teacher, a career lasting 38 years in four schools.

My goal as a teacher was to impart knowledge to my students, and to serve as a cheerleader to encourage them to want to discover and learn for themselves.

I began teaching by the traditional lecture/note taking manner. But in the latter years, I involved students in running my classes. We often had small group discussions. Just before a test I asked students to help me make up questions and I always used some of their questions on my tests. Creating the class experience into a partnership made learning a true joy, and made education fun.

A fourth career has been writing. As an analyst in Washington, I wrote many reports. Then after I started teaching I wrote a study guide that students could bring to class. It went through six editions and is now out of print.

I wrote many op-ed columns for local papers, and am happy to have the opportunity here to write for The Times. I like to provide background information and pose questions to promote discussion. I have traveled to more than 55 countries seeking information for my classes. I usually took students with me. But that was not a career, just a passion to see for myself other lands and other peoples.

So I have had a good life. God has given me a super family and outstanding friends. I have been blessed more than I deserve. God is good and has been especially good to me.

Has my life made much of a difference in the world? Maybe, maybe not.

Tom Nichols is a Gainesville resident and retired college professor. Originally published Oct. 8, 2007. 



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