Author Andy Rooney once said, “The best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.” I would agree with Andy Rooney and add that it’s a classroom where what goes unspoken is just as powerful as what is spoken. It’s a classroom powered by wisdom and lessons taught by example.
I’ll never forget my last year of high school. By that time everyone in my senior class had cars—and not just cars, but brand new cars, the best their parent’s money could buy. As a teenager, owning a car was the ultimate status symbol. It represented maturity, belonging, and most of all independence. It represented everything I desired, but didn’t have. My mom was a single parent who’d worked to put my older brother through college and was strained financially trying to afford private school tuition. A car for me was simply out of the question.
I’d cringe inwardly each afternoon as I walked out of the school and saw my grandfather’s rusty, white Oldsmobile parked faithfully at the curb, waiting to take me home. I balked at those red leather seats whose cushions were split, the A/C unit that didn’t work, and the seatbelts I had to tug on a few times before the tension would ease enough for me to buckle. My grandfather’s jovial smile, however, was always enough to quell my complaints as I’d settle in for the ride.
Those rides became everything. We’d sputter through various neighborhoods, both nice and shabby alike, assigning each other a house. My grandfather would assign me a shack barely standing on its foundation and I’d scan the street until I found an even more ramshackle house to assign him in return. It was our year-long inside joke.
During basketball and track season, I would have practice after school that would carry on for an hour or two, but I could always count on that white Oldsmobile to be waiting to take me home afterwards. I’d find my grandfather sitting in the Louisiana heat with his windows rolled down, reading a newspaper.
My grandfather knew I had a crazy, sweet-tooth and some days a candy bar or a Honeybun would be sitting on the passenger side waiting for me to devour before it became a melted, sticky mess. Those treats would sweeten those rides just a little. We’d stop at various places, on errands for my grandmother, and we’d always run into someone my grandfather knew. Because he’d lived in Baton Rouge all his life, it seemed like he knew everybody and people always seemed glad to see him.
I didn’t fully appreciate those car rides home until our senior class went on a camping trip. Sitting around the campfire, each of us had to choose a classmate and identify something they admired about them. It was to happen randomly, so my heart raced as I waited for someone to pick me. “What quality or admirable trait did I possess among kids who had everything?” I silently wondered.
Finally, I heard my name called and a classmate said something that brought my entire senior year into focus. He said, “I admire your relationship with your grandfather. I wish I had the opportunity to get to know my grandfather like you know yours.”
All year I’d lamented having to be picked up from school like I was still a little kid, but I’d stumbled upon a treasure. I’d pined away for what I thought was gold, not realizing that everything that is golden doesn’t always glitter. That year my grandfather, inadvertently taught me what matters most in life—our relationships with others. Not our socioeconomic status. Not money or cars. Not even our popularity, but how we treat those around us. Do we see the intrinsic value in people? My grandfather inspired me to value people’s hearts and looking back I grew to value his heart. His heart was golden.
That lesson, that people are to be valued, not things, has stayed with me every day since and has proven invaluable to me time and time again. The elderly may have a little wear and tear from the toils and pressures of life, but just beneath the surface lie people of value, with wisdom to share, lessons to teach, and love to give.