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Picture this: a hot June afternoon in the '80s, and Hannah Karp Laipson '46 has just asked her Quinsigamond Community College English class to interpret a poem. A 20-ish woman glances at the poem and shrugs. The students in the back row seem to have come up with something but can't find the words to verbalize it. A few others start frantically making notes. Finally a first-year student, a young man, breaks the silence. He proceeds to give his haphazard explanation of what he thinks are the main themes of the poem. And then a middle-aged woman raises her hand and offers her interpretation. It is beautifully expressed and heartfelt; Laipson is amazed and pleased, but the first-year student grumbles. "That's not fair," he says. "She's been around a lot longer than me."
This difference in knowledge and experience, according to Laipson, is what made teaching at a community college challenging, yet rewarding. In fact, her experiences as a teacher of non-traditional students have been so rewarding that she's still doing it.
Although "retired" for the past 10 years, she continues to teach in the Learning and Retirement Program at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., making this her 37th year of teaching.
Laipson's commitment to the profession began at the end of World War II, when her husband was discharged from the Navy and enrolled at Amherst. She was offered a part-time teaching position at the University of Massachusetts. "I enjoyed it so much that after getting a graduate degree I had to continue," she said.
She has since taught at Amherst, Assumption College and Quinsigamond in a career that saw many changes in academia. When Laipson first taught at Assumption, it was an all-male Catholic college. "I was only the second woman to be teaching there, and during my tenure they admitted women to the college," she said. "It really was quite a transition period."
Now, many years later, she's back at Assumption with the Learning and Retirement Program. Created by Elderhostel, the program offers classes under the auspices of local colleges, though the groups remain autonomous of the institutions. The program at Assumption offers 60 to 70 courses; last fall Laipson was teaching a literature course on Ibsen.
Laipson says it's an easy jump from teaching traditional college students to teaching people 50 and up. "People who sign up for this program are usually well educated and have a desire to continue learning," she said. "Many of them have graduate degrees, have led professional lives. This makes the climate of the classes enthusiastic and interesting." Nonetheless, Laipson points out that it takes a while to get used to the fact that the students know as much as the instructor. "The teacher is definitely not an authoritarian figure, so it's a great sharing of knowledge and experience," shesaid.
Laipson has no regrets about her choice of career. "The impulse towards education has been very strong in my entire family," she said. "My father and mother were Russian immigrants who had been teachers before moving here. My oldest daughter is a teacher, my younger daughter is working in education, and I have two sons-in-law in academia. It's definitely in my blood. Education is the most basic part of life, and I've never regretted that I went into this field."
--Neha Sud '05
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