Mason Memories

It’s Never Too Late to Learn

On approaching the sixth decade of my life, I was laid off from an office job, on to which I was grimly clinging. The place was filled with intrigue and espionage, and I didn’t know how to play the game. Eighteen months shy of being vested, I found myself drawing unemployment.

At the time, my 25-year-old son was pursuing a Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Certificate at Mason when his company sent him on assignment out of town. Would Mom please attend two class sessions for him and take notes? His professor said it would be all right, but I was unsure of my note-taking skills. When was the last time I’d been on a college campus? This was grad school, and it sounded lofty. Yet, my son had confidence in me, and I was determined not to let him down. I took copious, meticulous notes. I tape-recorded and transcribed the class discussions. I reminded myself that my undergrad training was in journalism and discovered that I could keep up with the discussions even though more than 30 years of being a housewife and mother had intervened.

As I was relearning note-taking, I was also becoming intrigued with the fields of language learning and linguistics. So when my unemployment benefits ran out, I became an instructional assistant at a public school in Fairfax County and began taking courses toward a TESOL Certificate for myself. Because our family had lived in Germany until our children were 12 and 16, I knew well the struggles of learning a foreign language and the sting of cultural ignorance. Learning how to teach others to acquire a second language became my passion.

The young female professor, who had permitted me to take notes for my son, taught my first two courses. Twice, my son and I were classmates, which made me study harder than ever. The professor’s encouragement allowed me to believe that I really could dust off the old grey cells and learn new skills.

Too soon the last day of my final course came. Sadly, slowly, I walked to the parking lot. I was leaving academe. Good-bye, Johnson Center. Good-bye, George. What a boost of inspiration and energy you have gifted me as I near the twilight of my life.

I became a teacher at an elementary school where more than 50 percent of the students speak English as a second language and the curriculum is centered around a reading and writing program. After a year, a fellow teacher recommended me for the Northern Virginia Writing Project, which rekindled my interest in writing. In the summer of my 65th year, I retired from teaching, but the school principal asked me to return in September as a tutor. Teaching small groups of students for half a day allows me to pursue freelance writing.

I will always be grateful to that young professor who encouraged this old grad student to keep learning.

Ruth Baja Williams, TESOL Certificate ’01, is the author of Detour Berlin, a memoir of her two decades of life in West Berlin during the Cold War. She also tutors at a school in Fairfax County and is a freelance writer.


Do you fondly remember certain places within the Mason community that exemplified the “college experience”? Were you befriended by a mentor or professor at Mason who influenced your life? If so, tell us about it. Send your submission to Alumni Affairs, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, MS 3B3, Fairfax, VA 22030. Please keep submissions to a maximum of 500 words.