School Daze


One might expect that a class of sixtysomethings, after a lifetime of appointments, would arrive on time. Not so. It’s past the 10 a.m. starting time for the Friday computer class at the New York Public Library’s East 58th Street branch, and senior citizens are still drifting in, looking unconcerned. Instructor Robert Himmel, 69, looks impatiently at his watch. What can he do? When you’re dealing with retirees, demerits are not an option.

“They come because they want to socialize and play games,” says Himmel, a retired software developer who’s now a volunteer for SeniorNet, a San Francisco nonprofit that specializes in computer education for people 55 and older. Himmel’s New York classes are packed with rowdy retirees. “There’s not much fear or dread,” he says. Students come because they own or plan to own a computer “or because they want to have something in common with their grandkids.”

So much for senior citizens as technophobes. Many plan to write their memoirs, so they’re interested in word processing. They’re receptive to e-mail–not only for the conversation, but because of the easy links to information about Social Security, Medicaid, and rent regulation. They love computer solitaire, but don’t care for chat rooms. “They don’t relate to them,” says Himmel–and, in many cases, they don’t type fast enough to keep up with the furious pace of Internet babble.

At 10 after 10, Himmel decides he’ll wait no longer. He greets his class of 14–men and women, mostly white–with a quick review of Netscape, then launches into today’s topic–e-mail. Most of the students already have an account. “The beauty of e-mail is that it’s instant gratification!” Himmel exclaims. When it’s time to surf, he orders his students to double click on the Netscape icon and explore the NYPL home page. Some beginners have the usual snafus: unsteady double clicking or forgetting what an icon is. The impatient ones–they don’t know the Web is nicknamed the World Wide Wait–complain that their computers are frozen or malfunctioning.

Failing vision is a troublemaker. One man accidentally clicks the close box, shutting down Netscape. Even reading the addresses written on a giant posterboard at the front of the classroom is a challenge. Those with shaky hands have trouble typing error-free addresses into the find-location box. Himmel is patient throughout, explaining and reexplaining.

When the class gains momentum, giddiness seizes the room. There are no paper airplanes, but Himmel is occasionally forced to shush people. “Come on, Leon, get with it,” Himmel chides, jokingly slapping one inattentive student on the shoulder. “We’ll make you cutting-edge yet.” He winks.

Despite the frequent pleas for Himmel’s attention, the class proceeds to more advanced topics like bookmarking and saving to disk. For several first-timers, even inserting floppy disks poses problems. One woman tries shoving her floppy into an expensive machine’s CD-ROM drive, evoking a wince from a library employee who’s observing.

Slowly, the students gain confidence in their surfing. Flora Steinman cruises the Bahamas tourist board. A few others check out the Times crossword. Barbara Harris, a retired systems analyst, searches for Che Guevara’s diaries. The ambient chatter grows louder, punctuated with shouts. “Microsoft is down three quarters!” yells Himmel as he helps someone find stock quotes, adding that he doesn’t like Microsoft because “they’re trying to take over everything.”

In high school an outfit may have mattered, but among the seniors it’s all about investment portfolios. “You know why you don’t like Microsoft? Because you don’t have any shares! I do, and I love it!” boasts Al Federman. “They stifle competition,” counters Himmel. “I don’t think so. They make technology available to people,” adds Stan Federman, taking his brother’s side.

It’s been two-and-a-half hours since the class started, and the decibel level has reached a crescendo. “I’ve never had it any other way. They’re having so much fun,” Himmel explains later. As the class is ending, the uninitiated open e-mail accounts, jot down passwords, and exchange addresses with promises to write. Only then does one possible dissenter muster the courage to challenge all this newfangled technology. “Can you live without e-mail?” he asks. “Sure!” says Himmel. “If you didn’t need it before, you don’t need it now.”

The next free NYPL Internet-basics classes for seniors are on October 15 and 22 at the Webster Branch Library. Registration is required: 288-5049. SeniorNet also offers low-cost computer courses to its members. For online membership information:, or call 924-6710.