Victor Hugo suggests that education is liberating. In fact, his famous literary character, ex-convict Jean Valjean, learned from something totally foreign — the morals of Bishop Myriel. The indelible act of mercy that Bishop Myriel showed Valjean changed the projection of Valjean’s life permanently. Perhaps Hugo was thinking of Valjean when he said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” My personal reflections on this quote brought me to my grandfather…
My grandfather opened a door to education at the age of 90. Two years prior, he decided it was time to relinquish his driver’s license and gold Toyota Corolla. Ten years prior to that, he insisted that “this year” would be his final year driving. Being an extrovert, world traveler, and adventurous man, relinquishing his mode of transportation would create an environment of confinement for my grandfather.
In order to make this difficult transition as easy as possible, we all promised my grandfather that we would take him out whenever he’d like and drive him wherever he had to go. And we did. But, it wasn’t the same: his independence was gone; his freedom diminished.
One morning, my phone rang. “Hi, Grandpa! How are you doing?”
“I need your mother’s email address. I’m doing email.”
A week or so later, to my amusement, I opened up my Gmail to find a chain email that my grandfather had forwarded to me. Every so often, a little note or inquiry would trickle its way into my email. What’s your sister’s address? He would write. Or, Are you and the kids available for brunch? These messages reminded me of my college days, when I would excitedly find a typewritten letter from him in my mailbox.
One evening, I went to visit my grandfather in his retirement home. He had requested that I come over so I could show him how to attach a file to an email. But first, he had to show me what he found on YouTube. We spent the next thirty minutes watching videos, and he was delighted.
I picked my grandfather up to go shopping one morning. As we were driving, he nonchalantly mentioned some pictures he had seen on Facebook. “You’re on Facebook?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, yes. I’m on everything.” With theatrical gestures, my grandfather pointed here with his left index finger and there with his right index finger, explaining how he clicks through his browser to navigate all sites. Sure enough, I went home, found his Facebook page and “friended” him. The next time we spoke, it was about all the pictures we had seen that friends and family had posted.
After email, YouTube, and Facebook came Skype. His Dell desktop became his new Corolla. My grandfather was able to talk to relatives in Canada. He was able to see what his cousin was building in Greece. And he kept going.
My grandfather decided to research legal cases that were of interest to him. The next time I took him shopping, it was to buy a 3-ring binder for him to organize all his notes on various lawsuits. Then, he began to research Yelp reviews and lawsuits involving Yelp. “Oh, Kathryn,” he would say, “the computer takes up all my time!” The computer did take up all his time, but it didn’t take up his energy.
We recall cartoons from our youth, where prisoners in striped uniforms use a spoon to dig through their cell floor to freedom. Jailbreak movies and books alike are abundant with instances of distracting riots or opportunistic bribes that permit convicts to escape from their confines. Spoons, bribes, and riots will never serve as reliable means of emancipation from our personal “prisons.” We do, however, have one powerful tool at our disposal: education. Valjean allowed himself to learn from the morality of a clergyman. Less dramatically, my grandfather accepted the technological revolution from which people of his age are generally set apart. Victor Hugo suggests that education is liberating. He is right. By opening the door to the world of computers, my grandfather closed his prison.