Well Being: Like a volcano, she pours forth knowledge

Judy Michel is a retired teacher who is fascinated by volcanoes. For most of her 37 years in the classroom, she taught middle schoolers, early adolescents whose behavior is often determined by erupting hormones. One could reasonably wonder if there's a connection.

For Michel, teaching middle schoolers was not a hardship; it was an ever-changing challenge and delight. She taught at the Baldwin School and Penn Charter and for six years was middle school head at the Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh. She describes her former middle school pupils this way:

"They have lots of energy. They want to learn. They want to please and do well. They're wide-eyed and enthusiastic. They ask good questions and have crazy ideas. And inside there's basic goodness."

The same might be said of Michel, 65, who continues to share her gifts as teacher, mentor, and coach. Of her knack for teaching middle schoolers, she says: "I know what they do and how they work. Maybe because I'm just a grown-up middle schooler myself."

Since 2004, Michel has been enriching the minds of students at the other end of the age spectrum - "seasoned adults" at Widener University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Exton. There, she has taught courses on geology, weather, water, the physics of electricity, natural disasters, and, of course, volcanoes.

Funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation, OLLI is an academic cooperative run by members who volunteer their time and talent. Its mission: "to provide opportunities for intellectual development, cultural stimulation, personal growth, civic engagement, and social interaction."

It's a mission Michel embraces. She's a natural teacher because she's a natural learner. For her, learning is living, an essential part of well-being. "Once you stop learning, you're done," she says.

Learning is not confined to the classroom, of course. It's a byproduct of any activity undertaken with an open, curious mind. In Michel's case, the range of activities is wide.

Besides teaching, she also referees high school field hockey and lacrosse games. (She captained the field hockey team at Lower Merion, where she also played basketball and lacrosse, sports she continued at Mount Holyoke.) She does Pilates and rides a recumbent bike. Despite seven knee surgeries, she recently began playing pickleball, a downsized cousin of tennis played with a Wiffle ball and a solid Ping Pong-like paddle.

"I intend to keep moving until my body betrays me."

For a time, she was a ranked squash player. Until her shoulders became cranky, she was an endurance swimmer. She has stroked the 4.3-mile length of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge eight times. A Phillies and Eagles fan, she's a member of fantasy baseball and football leagues "with guys all over the country; I'm the only girl." When she taught at Penn Charter, she decided to develop her musical side, so she learned to play the flute, piccolo, and trumpet and performed with the school band.

"Even in retirement, I don't have enough time to do all of the stuff I want," she says.

In the mid-'90s, frustrated by the short shrift given volcanoes in an earth science textbook she was using, Michel decided she needed to learn more. So she went to Hawaii for a workshop ("when I saw my first lava flow, I was in heaven"). Spellbound, she returned two more times. Since then she has visited volcanoes in Iceland, Italy, Greece, and the Galapagos Islands, as well as Mount St. Helens ("The massive scale of the eruption is amazing; if it had happened in Philadelphia, everything would be covered with gray ash as far as Pottstown"). The mantel of her Ardmore twin is adorned with lava samples that she said she had permission to collect.

She spends hours preparing for her classes. She revels in the obscure fact, the astonishing detail. Did you know that some lava is as fine as a strand of hair?; that the westward expansion of the United States may have been propelled by the eruption of a volcano in Tambora in 1815?

Her metier, then as now, is infecting others with her enthusiasm. "That's the greatest joy," she says, "sharing all I know with people who appreciate it."

"Lively" and "engaging" is how her OLLI students describe her. "If I were a teacher, I'd be jealous," says Rod Mitchell, 72, of Berwyn. Adds Peggy Downey, 71, of Coatesville: "I wish I had a teacher like her when I was in school."

Michel returns the compliment. "They're like kids," she says of her senior students. "They get so excited when they make a connection. They all want to learn and they're not always asking 'Will this be on the test?' "

One of her favorite pupils was also her oldest. For three years, he took her courses when he was in his early 90s. His name was Mike, and he was Michel's father. Late in life, when he could no longer play tennis, he read 511 books. He died in February two days shy of 96.

Michel intends to live accordingly. Tacked to a bulletin board over her computer is a postcard, bought in 1977, faded to sepia: "This life is mine," it proclaims. "Some of it was given to me; the rest I made myself."


Well Being:

Judy Michel talks about the joys of a life of learning and teaching at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

For information about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, visit www.widener.edu/olli or call 484-713-0088.

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com. Read his recent "Well Being" columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.