89-year-old retired educator writes an ode to young mentors

“She has changed my life,” says 89-year-old Kevin Bunnell. He is talking about 16-year-old Mikinly Sullivan, who once a week comes to the Frasier Meadows retirement community in Boulder, Colorado. The two are part of a program called Cyber Seniors, where high school students teach computer and internet skills to senior citizens.

Bunnell, a retired educator and school administrator, says he has learned so much from Sullivan, even though he is 73 years her senior. Sullivan says the learning goes both ways. “I love listening to the stories from when he was young.”

The goal of Cyber Seniors is much broader than simply connecting seniors to the digital age, says Jack Williamson, who runs the Boulder program. “It helps build relationships between young people and seniors, which is rare in this culture today.”

On the day the NewsHour visited, Sullivan was teaching Bunnell how to catalogue and save the many poems that he has written over his lifetime. Most recently, he wrote a poem about the reverse mentoring that takes place through Cyber Seniors.

They Come on a Mission

They come on a mission—
to fill a gap in the lives of their elders.
Their youthful expertise and wisdom,
surprises us who are supposed to own such qualities.

They are guided into this new experience
by men and women who love to see their charges
shoulder new mantles of knowledge and understanding.

They come wearing hats of many shapes.
We wonder if those hats are sending secret signals.
But the messages escape us.

We especially wonder about hats worn with flat bills to the back,
and recall bills worked into curves
until we seemed to peer from a tunnel.

These young people come in all sizes and shapes.
Some tall, bearded and muscular.
Others in the bloom of impending adulthood.

But these are only superficial signs and symbols.
They also come with precious bounties,
invisible on first sight,
and still hidden during initial meetings.

Then we bring forth computers
and lay them before these youngsters
along with our ignorance.

Now the rules kick in.

There are parietal rules to prevent
behavior incompatible with our learning goals.
Our student mentors have come,
not to display their technical skills
but to evoke understanding in those they teach.
Corollary: The learner’s fingers
are always on the keyboard and mouse.

The mentor sits to one side of the booted computer.
The voice is soft and patient.
“You’re right, this won’t work.
Let’s try this.”
Or, “You will need to activate your location service
before you can use all those other features.”
Or, “Janel is good at scanning matters.
We can stay after 4:00 and solve your problem.
My Dad will be waiting out front.”

Dedication, competence, and love are all here marshaled.
These neophyte teachers
have engendered rich and lively learning
to be envied by master teachers.

A proper educational project
is judged by results.
Are these young mentors transformed in some way?
Did they really induce learning?
Did they learn useful behaviors from their older partners?
Did they learn new and mysterious things about themselves?

And what of the elders?
Did those hours with the young transform them?
Did they learn to like and enjoy
their look into youth culture?
Were their computer frustrations eased?
Did they learn new techniques
that made their computer lives
more pleasant and productive?

The answers to these questions are yet to come.
They may not flow forth in one bolus.
More likely some answers will emerge unexpectedly—
an image of a face will recall an “aha” technical moment.
Or a sudden notice of fingers on a keyboard
may awaken a moment of laughter
that teetered on the edge of love.

Words there will be about this experience–
flowing easily from voices long separated.
The assessment will go on long after many of our voices are hushed.

Tune in to the NewsHour tonight to learn more about Cyber Seniors. You can watch on our Ustream Channel at 6 p.m. EST or check your local listings.