Inspiring Stories

Kathy Mathieson on Learning From Senior Planet and Cicadas 

 A search for a new smartphone led former teacher, bilingual specialist and Smithsonian docent, Kathy Mathieson, back to a role she always finds herself re-visiting: student.  

Now, Kathy is one of many participants in Senior Planet Montgomery’s Mandarin Program, offered in partnership with the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center (CCCSCenter). Click here to learn more about this exciting partnership. 

We spoke with Kathy about what it’s like to embrace every person or thing, even cicadas, as a teacher. 

Tell us about your learning experience. 

Attending Senior Planet classes was a coincidence, because my friend told me about them.  The classes help me overcome  my fear of the high tech.  Most importantly, I realize that I’m not the only one (among adults) to struggle with the modern world.  As long as I want, I can always find help from people in the CCACC.  Due to group-level and one-on-one training, we can all learn from each other, and don’t feel ashamed about our ages.

Part of taking our new online courses in Mandarin means being invited to attend the service hour at CCACC where you can work one-on-one with tutors to practice what you’ve learned in class. What has that experience been like for you? 

The best thing I learned was that I don’t need to be afraid. I am very impressed with the tutors and their attitude. In Chinese we call them “little teachers” but to me they are just teachers, because any person can tell you something new and help you learn. 

The tutors are mostly bilingual and second-generation immigrants, whereas the students like me are almost all Chinese, who feel more comfortable learning in their own mother-tongue.  

I don’t feel embarrassed that they know more than I do even though they are young and I am old. I say anybody who can teach me something I don’t know; I should respect and practice humility. 

 “Anybody can teach me something I don’t know.” 

What has it been like becoming the student again after so many years being the teacher? 

I didn’t have any difficulties. We say “you can always find teachers.” No matter good or bad, you can always learn from someone. Young, old or even criminal, you can always learn from them. And I do believe that. 

When I used to give tours as a volunteer docent at the The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in DC, kids would say “Oh, look at that!” and see something in the painting. I hadn’t seen it! The kids pointed it out to me. You can be a student in any situation.  

 What would you say to someone afraid to try a new technology? 

 You keep learning, don’t give up, you’ll be there. I think people need to see that it is possible. 

For example, I changed some peoples’ minds about cicadas. They thought the cicadas were scary, yucky, loud. But for me, I’ve learned something from the cicadas. How come their math is so good? How do they know to come up in 17 years instead of 8? Their math is better than mine! To me, this is worth respect.  

Plus, their life is so short, give them a break! You don’t need to talk to them, but at least give them a smile. I do really do that. Because I believe every living thing knows their duty. We should respect each other, whether small or not. 

What does aging with attitude mean to you? 

Aging means changing. Life is changing. Change is normal. In Buddhism it’s the same thing. Everything is changing – look at the sky, it’s changing. 


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